Beijing plays with fire by staging mass protests

Issue 

By Eva Cheng

In the days following NATO's May 7 bombing of China's Belgrade embassy, Beijing mobilised hundreds of thousands of students in protests in nearly 20 Chinese cities.

From May 12, the demonstrations started to subside, as the police increasingly put a rein on the protesters. Top officials ordered that the actions be shifted indoors, say, to the study of official speeches on the subject, internal seminars and petitions in order to guard against elements "who may use the occasion to disturb social order".

The government no doubt worried that the protesters, once mobilised and empowered, could soon broaden their concerns, confronting the lack of democracy and other social contradictions in China. Such a danger has greatly increased prior to the 10th anniversary of the massacre in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, on June 4.

Some Western media estimated that more than 400,000 people joined the protests across China on May 9-10, when the biggest anti-US/NATO demonstrations took place. In Xian, the protesters reportedly rose from 20,000 to 50,000 in a day, to more than 30,000 in Hangzhou and more than 10,000 each in Guangzhou, Shanghai and Wuhan. Smaller but similarly charged demonstrations occurred in Beijing, Chengdu, Shenyang, Nanjing, Guilin, Chengsha and Nanning.

Protests also took place with mainly Chinese participation in Hong Kong, Taipei, Singapore and Macau. The "Internationale" was reportedly broadcast during a May 10 Taipei protest called by the Chinese Unification Front. A May 10 protest in Hong Kong attracted 2000 people, a big mobilisation by local standards.

There was a widespread belief that the bombings were a provocation rather than an accident. Dented national pride drove many people to respond instantly to the official call to protest. Stones, cement blocks, paint bombs, tomatoes, eggs or whatever the protesters could lay their hands on were thrown for hours on end at embassies, particularly the US embassy.

The US consulate in Chengdu was set ablaze, the German consulate in Guangzhou was stormed, cars near the US embassy in Beijing were attacked, and windows were smashed in most of the targeted buildings in other cities.

Protesters tried to storm the Hyatt Hotel in Xian, where US President Bill Clinton stayed when he visited last year. They gave up only when the hotel manager promised to take down Clinton's photo and offered them US flags for burning.

McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets in various cities were also hit. A boycott of US and NATO country products was called through the internet as well as in political posters on campuses. Protesters took a lead from fierce attacks on US/NATO in the official press, swiftly rescheduled anti-imperialist movies on state TV and the Vice-President Hu Jintao's May 10 praise of the protesters.

Beijing was clearly worried about the possibility of new mobilisations on and around June 4. On May 10, a Beijing court sentenced Liu Xianli to jail for four years for interviewing and compiling the writings of pro-democracy activist Xu Wenli and Ding Zilin. Ding is the mother of a student killed at Tiananmen and an active advocate for reversing the official characterisation of the 1989 protests as "counter-revolutionary".

Anti-bureaucratic mass protests in Tiananmen Square on April 5, 1976, were violently suppressed and declared counter-revolutionary by Mao Zedong, but were officially re-characterised as revolutionary in late 1978, soon after Deng Xiaoping came to power. There is a widespread hope that Jiang Zemin will similarly re-characterise the 1989 protests.

Pro-democracy Chinese activists around the world are building an international petition campaign around this theme which will peak on June 4.