The Magazine

A TALE OF THE NEW CHINA

What I Saw at the American Embassy in Beijing

May 24, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 34 • By ETHAN GUTMANN
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Beijing, China


Saturday, May 8 -- I really wasn't in the mood to go to the "happening," a modern art show, but my wife insisted. So we began pedaling to a gallery in a hidden courtyard just west of the Forbidden City. As we rode side by side, I asked her, unironically, "Are we having fun yet?" And her eyes smiled and she said yes, and the spring air seemed to fill with the barely held-in satisfaction of two foreigners making it in a strange culture.


We weren't living the most glamorous life, it was true. I came here to do my own TV documentary and ended up creating feel-good talk shows for Chinese-style wages -- the only white man at an independent but exclusively Chinese television production company. And my wife -- let's call her Betsy -- was pursuing her scholarly career in the Asian way: poring through the moldering lists of the Qing emperors, hobnobbing with the poor academics who had made it through the Cultural Revolution to emerge as slightly less poor academics in the New China.


But I had been named executive producer of a new television show -- a Chinese attempt to place themselves in the American market -- and a top state-run TV network had just signed on. That meant, down the road, 100 million plus viewers! 150 million! More if Shanghai picked it up! True, I could only do shows about divorce, and pollution, and other "non-sensitive" topics. But still, I was building the New China, working with enlightened Chinese producers. And Betsy was methodically building her guanxi, her connections. Evidence of her success was clear: the occasional lavish banquet at Deng Xiaoping's favorite Sichuan restaurant, the growing trust between her masters and her, the cultural exchanges that seemed more liquid every day. What's more, art, Betsy's kind of high art, was becoming a kind of cornerstone of legitimacy for the New China, as it drugged the populace with larger and larger doses of nationalism and nostalgia for imperial China's tokens of power, culture, and authority.


The contemporary Chinese art scene was really a sideshow for Betsy, but the invites kept coming. Politeness had become warmth, had become something close to actual friendship. And I had basked in that reflected warmth! We were turning down invitations, we were a happening couple . . . these were my heady thoughts as we arrived at the art show near the Forbidden City.


We were greeted by the kind of eager, young, lithe beauty that you come to expect at these kinds of events. Always wearing a black bodysuit, the universal symbol for sophisticated, international culture. Always: "Please sign the book, please!" Always the shy and expectant smile.


We grabbed wine off a makeshift table and quickly toured the exhibits: huge carefully posed photographs of a thin naked Chinese man and a white girl with dark roots wearing little see-through raincoats, battery-operated dildos undulating in raw chunks of meat, an imperial robe constructed entirely of lime-green plastic, and plastic models of various state buildings filled with birds, goldfish, and -- gosh, how eggroll -- crickets. The guests were piling in: half Chinese artist types with bohemian hair configs and half expats, white girls with more black bodysuits and short haircuts, white men with textured, checked shirts and skinny Chinese girlfriends, everyone talking excitedly, pleased to be at the Very Center of the New China on a brilliant Saturday afternoon.


A new acquaintance, a jocund American art broker hailed me from across the garden and I joined him under a finely painted Chinese canopy -- "How are you doing?" He beamed at me. I beamed back and, after a short interlude of small talk -- I couldn't wait! -- I mentioned my new show. He began nodding knowingly, very good, very good, national TV, eh? You hear the news? No? I just heard about it on the way over -- a bomb hit the Chinese embassy in Belgrade last night. Just a little damage, I guess, but they say 18 people were hurt. There's bound to be some trouble.


I was surprised -- God, another stupid accident -- but I was relieved as well. No deaths, that's the main thing. I flashed back to the previous weeks: lunching with my Chinese co-workers as they occasionally tried to rake me over the coals for airstrikes in Kosovo. I always asked the same things: "Do you know how long this war has been going on? Do you know what it's about? The Opium war had an economic element; do you think that America is trying to make money in Kosovo?" Followed by my statement that while I understood the moral impetus for the NATO intervention, I personally thought the war was a mistake because we couldn't win it; of course, the silver lining was that a Republican would probably win the election. All this was poorly translated at best, and this last comment in particular tended to elicit rather chilly expressions from some. Once a girl from accounting with Trotsky glasses closed the lunch by shouting something translated roughly as: "America is the worst country!" But in general, my co-workers were a thoughtful and likable bunch -- they tended to give my position, as well as they understood it, a kind of compartmentalized respect. It was a door that would be opened and quickly shut again on the occasional rainy day lunch just to clear the air.


No deaths, that's the main thing. Could have been caused by a leaky gas stove. The Chinese tend to crowd around the kitchen and . . . anyway, no deaths, I repeated as a small, mostly naked Chinese man locked himself into a plastic bubble, painted himself green, and began to fill the bubble with water as the cameras rolled -- the "happening," however, seemed to be slowing down, freezing up. Rumors began spreading around the party. First, it was one dead, and 23 injured. Then two dead. Finally a Yugoslav journalist informed me rather definitively (he saw CNN): three dead, hit by three missiles, and one was a journalist from the Xinhua news agency, top of the state heap.


It dawned on me that we should do something, and I clamored for Betsy to kiss cheeks and exchange cards. We rode east with the Yugoslav, thinking about heading straight for the American embassy. We waved to a Chinese friend who was on her way to a massage. In what now seems like a particularly surreal moment, we almost chose to go to a book fair instead, except that the Yugoslav's cell phone tinkled, and he was informed that, indeed, something was going on near the embassy.


On Jianguomen Avenue, we passed our first rapidly marching squadron of police. Turning the corner at the Citic building, the police began to rapidly increase in density: one every ten yards, then one in five, then one in three. As we turned the corner down embassy row, we heard a strange sound in the distance, the roar, the sound that calls a man as surely as bagpipes.


My heart raced now, and we pedaled fast down the block, suddenly running into a police barricade, with about 50 Chinese onlookers trying to peer down the block towards the embassy. Betsy and I simply walked past the police cordon, making a big show of chaining our bikes up. The police would not stop people like us from entering, because foreigners could still do what they wanted in Beijing, because they weren't Chinese.


Immediately the first battalion of young student protesters from some obscure university advanced down the block. You've seen the pictures, I imagine. It was textbook: long red banners with Chinese characters splashed on in black paint. Waving little fists mechanically. Freshmen and sophomores mostly. The hipper Chinese students had torn scarves wrapped around the head. The majority were clean-cut specimens. We ran past them towards the embassy, actually finding ourselves a cramped space just in front of the gate.


Beyond the gate, all was normal. Spreading trees turned the area into a kind of large grotto, gentle sunlight, although the wind was picking up. The U.S. embassy was well kept, as always, its facade showing no signs of life -- why would it on a golfer's Saturday? Surrounding it were the cameras, mainly foreign, although a few from Chinese state television, CCTV. About 15 policemen in their green uniforms lined the gate, relaxed, almost in a holiday mood. As Betsy pointed out, any break in the monotony of life in an authoritarian state is so lovely! They were finally being given something to do!


About 500 student demonstrators stood in front, with long red and gold banners and hand-painted signs: USA go to hell, F -- USA, US Killer, F -- NATO, NATO=Nazi. The chants were translated for me: PLEAD GUILTY! U.S. KILLER! GO HOME! MURDERERS! U.S. PIGS GO HOME! -- COME OUT COME OUT OR WE'LL GO IN! AMBASSADOR COME OUT! PEOPLE'S REPUBLIC OF CHINA BANZAI! Very loud and high-pitched, over and over, led by an individual with a megaphone. The screaming would change pitch and pace every minute, and when it did, the faces would relax -- were they having fun yet? Their eyes smiled yes. Then the megaphone organizer would start pumping his arms, and the teeth would retract, and the mouths would start, and the testosterone would pump, and the eyes would start rolling. All in precision drill and extremely responsive to orders, as if they were being given mild electric shocks. Still, the holiday atmosphere prevailed -- after all, this is the pure, angry, righteousness-defining moment that college students the world over dream of! But in China, for ten long years nothing -- and now this!


No one touched us, no one shoved, and yet, behind the police, behind the fence, inside the court-yard was a flag -- mine -- and a plot of land, safe land. Yet I felt heady and faint just for being here: the capital of next century's Superpower, the center of the world for a day, its youth, Borg-like in their unified loathing of our flag and our little plot.


After a while, when the chanting lost its steam, the megaphone leader would strike up a short sing-along of the national anthem. This was the signal to leave, to shuffle along and give the next university its chance to demonstrate.


The cycle continued, fresh waves of students, monotony. Several British journalists discussed the numbers: They felt it was low, about 3,000; in a kind of Chinese scarf trick, the same student groups kept reappearing after an hour or so. The students, when isolated and interviewed, were naively forthcoming; the university authorities had told them to come, told them to make banners, arranged the buses. The whole demonstration was canned, and yet . . .


Fresh chanters had started from Beijing University. As the major instigators of Tiananmen, they had a legacy to uphold. Their demonstration went through the cycles, the patriotic song drifted off, time to leave, but suddenly someone sat. Immediately, 50 more sat, and then the rest, with the organizer yelling impotently. From the moment of arrival in Beijing, I had always sensed the weird political static electricity that seemed to surround Chinese crowds -- a split-second deterioration of the rules, a tendency for aggression to flip, unpredictability. As one China hand had put it to me, "If left to their own devices, would the Chinese people have Li Peng hanging from a lamp post within ten minutes?"


The Beijing U. students sat down, and we wondered, were we present at the birth of a new Tiananmen? Just as quickly, it became clear that they were the wrong cast: too young, too well scrubbed, and too neophyte. Pleased, excited by their own petty audacity, they stayed put for a minute, and then the Tiananmen wannabes were herded off. The cops doubled in front of the embassy and locked arms. I told Betsy to conserve our film.


Next up, Qinghai U., "the MIT of China," was back. The chanting reached a fever pitch, and then a lull . . . something flew out of the crowd and crashed against the embassy. Whoops of joy. Then another, then another, sounding like bugs crashing on a windshield. Now we could see the hands releasing the chunks of concrete. The lamps topping the fence were quickly destroyed . . . the cops impassive.


And the day was really over, and a night of destruction of the embassy and sport was beginning. I groggily realized that my new TV show was probably gone, maybe my job, too . . . that I was reduced, but also less compromised. After ten years the State was showing its fist to the world again, not just to a few China watchers and China hands.


The rest, you know. But how could I have known what would follow? The non-stop xenophobic and racist exhortations on TV, with weeping relatives of the dead in Belgrade holding bloody clothes to their chests. The total blackout of American statements of explanation, apology, regret. The cancellation of all American movies and music. The burning of the Chengdu consulate. The anti-American war films in the afternoon. The beating of journalists. The sanctioned racism on the streets. The condescending "tolerance" at work. My slowly awakening comprehension of the leadership struggle that manufactured many of these events. Most of all, the feeling that something had shifted under my feet.


China was discarding the foreign devil, like a used shell dropping off a cicada's back. Fun was fun, but all around us, the wings were suddenly beating way too fast.




Ethan Gutmann is a television producer living in Beijing.