Willem van Kemenade: Witness report on the Japanese embassy demonstration

Thanks to Willem van Kemenade for the following account from Beijing:

I witnessed the demo in front of the Japanese embassy this afternoon for about one hour, from 5 to 6 pm. My son had alerted me by mobile one hour before and said that they were walking in from the second ring road through Gong Ti Bei Lu and from there were moving south, but apparently were diverted by large contingents of traffic police in black uniforms and equally large contingents of PAP. I didn’t see any PLA. Only a minor part of the large parade was allowed to march into Ritan Lu, where the old Japanese embassy is. The new one in the northeastern CBD in Chaoyangmen is not open yet. The Jianguomenwai embassy district was almost hermetically cordoned off and we had to walk quite a distance to get to Ritan Lu.

The crowd of demonstrators in front of the embassy was prevented from doing anything excessive, because it was sealed off by several hundred PAP five men deep and perhaps a hundred wide, all holding cattle prods and plastic transparent shields. The crowd numbered not more than several hundreds and also several hundred traffic unarmed police were standing by. Most of the crowd were students, but also some young business executives in pinstripe suits and some sexagenarian veteran patriots. The leader, Tong Zeng appealed to outsiders, like spectators and journalists to make room, because the main contingent of demonstrators, perhaps tens of thousands was still trying to join in, but this didn’t happen. Later we learned they were diverted to the Lufthansa center area, in the CBD, where the nearly finished new Japanese embassy is located. Due to heavy traffic jams, we couldn’t get close to there until it was 8 pm and all over.

They shouted anti-Japanese slogans, mainly about the impending boycot of Japanese goods, nothing new. Tong Zeng was walking around with a megaphone, saying that this was the beginning of a new era of protests. The police allowed the crowds to throw things across their own cordon and they threw mostly plastic bottles, but some were glass bottles and each time there was a smashing sound of a glass-hit, the crowd cheered and applauded wildly. Some guys were pulling tiles from the pavement, and breaking them into small rocks and at some points there was a hail of pebbles flying across the PAP cordon. One nice detail: “One pinstripe wearing young computer executive was walking around with two hands full of broken tile pieces. He put his stones on the street and prepared to throw the first one, when police intervened, kicked the stones away, while he was aiming. His muscles weren’t forceful eneough and the stone hit the plastic shield of the PAP and bounced back to himself. The stones were too small to do real damage, because you could’t throw a big stone far enough to hit the main embassy-building. So in the end only the windows of the security/reception booth outside of the main building were all smashed

Meanwhile, a police van announced from loudspeakers the message, repeated dozens of times: “Express your protest with discipline and restraint, and once you’ve done so, go back to your campus. The buses are waiting and indeed many dozens of buses, perhaps hundreds were waiting in Xishui Jie and Guang Hua Lu”. Around six pm. traffic police marched in and started gently prodding the crowd to disperse. Saying ” ‘Chu chu qi. Goule’. You have vented your spleen. Enough. Now go back to your school”. And slowly it started calming down.

The conclusion. The embassy yard was undoubtedly a garbage belt of assorted projectiles, but no major damage was done. Any press reports or Japanese news bulletins who imply or assert so, and I have seen some, exaggerate or misinform for whatever reason. The Chinese authorities did not orchestrate this protest march, but did not want to block it, as this might have resulted in a massive violent confrontation with the police force. It reminded me of the first protest marches from Beida/Zhongguancun in early April 1989, right after the death of Hu Yaobang. Police tried to block the students at the first intersection outside of Beida, but immediately realised they couldn’t stop it without major bloodshed and the police cordons melted away like icecream in the sunshine.

This time the police-mission clearly was: indeed let them vent their youthfull anger a bit and pass on a clear message to the despised Japanese; we will indulge them a bit but not allow them to get out of control. Tong Zeng suggested there will be an extensive programme of follow up activities, without going into detail. The first stage of the great protest movement after Hu Yaobang’s death is now exactly 16 years ago. A new cyclical major similar event is overdue. Perhaps we are at the beginning of a long hot summer.


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