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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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.