Protesting – Beijing style
By David Gray
Starting last Wednesday, I have been riding my bike to the Japanese embassy in Beijing to cover protests against the Japanese government purchasing disputed islands in the East China Sea. These protests started off with just a few people – perhaps a few dozen – as ‘Beijingers’ are not used to being allowed to voice their opinions loudly (and most importantly, in large numbers) on the streets about anything.
The day it was announced that Japan had bought the islands, small groups of protesters were ushered into position by officials outside the main entrance to the embassy, and allowed to yell slogans and hold banners for around 10 minutes at a time. Some occasionally threw a water bottle or small stone over the gate, but they were quickly led away by plainclothes police with what can only be described as a ‘friendly’ warning.
So, we turned up on Saturday, thinking it would be yet another day of monotonous chanting and yelling. We carried our ladders, which had become necessary because the area that officials had deemed ‘adequate for press requirements’ was of course ridiculously small and we needed them to see over the top of each other. At first, a few groups arrived, but not in substantial numbers. But the word must have got out that protests were being ‘allowed’, and quite unexpectedly, thousands of people appeared and began pushing the outnumbered riot police guarding the embassy’s main entrance.
The crowd was kicking and pushing the metal barriers, climbing trees and power poles, and for a while it seemed they might just overpower the police. But as has been my experience in China, when crowds have the potential to overpower the police, reinforcements are not far away, and a few more hundred turned up carrying extra barriers to stop the surge.
This had now become by far the largest number of people I had ever seen involved in a protest since I arrived in Beijing more than five years ago.
Having overcome this initial onslaught, the police then convinced the crowd to fall back, and start their marches up and down the road again. This involved the crowd being separated into groups of around 30-40 people, and keeping them separated from each other. This gave the police the ability to control the huge numbers of people who had now turned up, numbering in their thousands, as small groups, and meant they would not be overwhelmed by the numbers once again.
And so, the marching and chanting began again, but this time, so did the hurling of water bottles. Over the day, there must have been thousands of plastic bottles hurled towards the embassy’s entrance, with many of course hitting, and some exploding on top of the police. To my surprise, they took these hits with extremely good humor, looking at each other and laughing. But this did not last long. Next came small plastic bags filled with dirt, followed by hundreds of eggs.
Many of the eggs landed near the media ‘pen’. When I was looking through my camera and standing atop my ladder, one bag hit me square in the head, exploding all over my face and shirt. Thankfully, the dirt narrowly missed landing on my laptop nearby, which was on and from which I was sending pictures to my boss Pedja Kujundzic. It was not funny at the time (well, maybe for some), but thinking back, I’m just grateful the bag wasn’t filled with something else – some we discovered were filled with old food and even rocks.
And so, it is more than a week since the first group of protesters came and voiced their opinions outside the embassy, and with things not looking like they will change, I prepare to head out again early tomorrow morning with my ladder and towel.
As I always do in China, I head out with the motto I have had in my head for the last 5 years – expect the unexpected.