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.