War in the Balkans: On the Streets of Peking - `Today they bomb our embassy, tomorrow it will be our country'

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The Independent Online
AS TENS of thousands of incensed students and ordinary Chinese surged through the main embassy district of Peking and took to the streets of big cities across the country yesterday, China's leaders moved to ensure that the nationalistic fury they had unleashed would not spin out of control.

Who could have imagined that the collateral damage from Nato's attempts to help the Kosovo Albanians might conceivably extend to China's precarious social stability?

It is less than four weeks until the highly sensitive tenth anniversary of the violent crackdown against the pro-democracy Tiananmen Square protests on 4 June 1989, and China's government would normally want students quietly studying on campus.

Since the beginning of this month, Peking has been swarming with security personnel, alert for even the slightest signs of public disorder.

That was until Nato bombed China's Belgrade embassy. Yesterday, for the second day, China's leaders gave the go-ahead for universities to bus in thousands of students to chant outside the American and British embassies, throw bricks and burning wreckage through the compound gates, smash US diplomatic cars and march unimpeded through central Peking - all under the noses of thousands of the police and paramilitary.

These were extraordinary scenes to be sanctioned by a government obsessed with social stability. "If the government does not tell us to protest, maybe people will think President Jiang Zemin is just a coward. So he must do something," said 20-year-old Xiao Cai, a student at the China Agricultural University. Mr Cai said he had been informed earlier yesterday morning that he could join one of the eight buses coming from his campus.

However, like everyone else in the crowds, his anger was genuine. Behind him, the tree-lined avenue leading to the American embassy was solid with convoys of university students, impatient to express their horror and decked out with large Chinese flags and an array of imaginative banners.

Two of the biggest read in English: "Ugly, Sordid Ass! Naked, Arrant, Tyrannical, Outrage" and "Clinton, you need to be civilized". A swastika and Nazi moustache was a common addition to the US President's face. "Today they bomb our embassy, tomorrow they will bomb our country," said Gao Mingzhe, 22, an economics graduate, who stood watching as youths hurled bricks over the perimeter gate of the British embassy.

Mr Zhang, a 30-year-old businessman standing near the US visa section where burning newspaper was being thrown at the American flag, commented: "We should push our government to spend more money on the military."

This weekend's eruption represented the biggest anti-foreigner action since the British embassy was burnt down by Red Guards during the 1966- 76 Cultural Revolution, and the first student street protests since 1989. Both the government and protesters are so far speaking with one patriotic voice.

But that still leaves potential risks for China's leaders if they fail to keep control of the passions they have encouraged. This is a country where the government usually stifles the first sign of public activism on any subject.

After publicly indicating that these demonstrations are approved at the highest level, can they contain this level of public indignation from spilling over to the domestic political front? China's state-controlled newspaper and television have whipped up national outrage.

The People's Daily, flagship of the Chinese Communist Party, yesterday said Nato had deliberately "spilt Chinese blood". An editorial angrily asserted that "Nato's subsequent chicanery, with claims that it did `not intentionally target the Chinese embassy', could not cover up the bloody fact".

But consider the possible flashpoints. Relations between the massed ranks of uniformed police and the demonstrators have so far been mostly friendly. But what will be the crowd's reaction if police are forced by growing violence to start detaining protesters? While the authorities have maintained control over student demonstrations during the day, the atmosphere has turned far uglier after dusk, when gangs of aggressive youths, many drunk, have joined the throng. After dark, the police no longer seem confident of what their tactics are supposed to be.

Anti-Western passions are also turning more violent, with a growing number of foreigners being intimidated on the streets or in their cars, and many staying at home after dark.

This, as well as the mounting crisis in Sino-US relations, runs the risk of further souring the foreign investment climate at a time when China's faltering economy desperately requires overseas capital.

The most serious question for the government is whether the angry crowds will use the sanctioned anti-Nato campaign to voice their displeasure over soaring unemployment, corruption and other social ills.

Strikes and public protests are already commonplace across China, but are usually met with swift suppression. Yesterday evening there was already an increasing number of unemployed taking part in the demonstrations.

Hu Jintao, the Vice- President, went on television last night to say the government supported the protesters, but warned that the leadership would "resolutely safeguard social stability" and "remain vigilant of any attempts to take advantage of the situation to disturb social order". There are reports that some mainland dissidents are being detained because Peking fears they could pursue a different agenda.

Just six days ago, Mr Hu exhorted the country's youth to carry forward the spirit of great patriotism which "vividly revealed the Chinese spirit of indomitability and its constant aspiration to be stronger".

He was marking the 80th anniversary of the 4 May movement in 1919, when Chinese students took to the streets to protest against their government's ceding of sovereign territory to foreign powers.

China's media is now suggesting that the weekend student demonstrations follows in the tradition of the 4 May protests. Historically, however, anti-foreigner movements in China have frequently taken on a momentum of their own.

The 1898 Boxer Uprising began with attacks on foreigners and missionaries, but broadened into opposition to the Manchu dynasty. The 4 May movement of 1919 was prompted by Japan grabbing Chinese territory, but became a much wider cultural and political phenomenon.

On Saturday evening, on the corner by the US embassy where a rowdy crush of youths stood their ground against the police lines, five students from Peking's Foreign Languages University decided it was time to return to their dormitories. "Some people may want to use this situation for other matters," one of them explained.

China's leaders must have felt confident that they could maintain control before they decided to sanction such large-scale protests. But these well- publicised demonstrations cannot fail to set a precedent in the minds of ordinary people.

If they are allowed to demonstrate against Nato bombs in Belgrade, then why not on issues much closer to home?