The Magazine


What I Saw at the American Embassy in Beijing

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