The Rule Of The People, p.21Christopher Read
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The first anti-war protests had started the previous day, a few hundred demonstrators gathering in Beijing’s Wangfujing Street. Home to chain stores, boutiques and restaurants, the long pedestrian mall well illustrated China’s multinational standing, the street’s businesses and shoppers nervous as to how the threat of war might affect them. The gathering had been well organised and relatively polite as protests go, with just a dozen or so homemade placards pleading for a bloodless resolution to the crisis. Most people had given the demonstration nothing more than a cursory glance; however, by early afternoon it had pulled in a watching crowd several hundred strong – not exactly supporters but the curious and the concerned, people listening in polite silence as a speech had extolled the virtues of diplomacy and peaceful co-operation.
The police had kept a careful eye on events but not interfered, the problems only beginning when a larger counter-protest had formed less than fifty metres away, outside the McDonalds restaurant. The second group had been far more vociferous than their neighbours and eventually some had turned their attention to haranguing anyone who spoke out against China’s aggressive stance; even the watching Friday-afternoon shoppers had been targeted, jeered for their American-style clothes, those trying to eat in the McDonalds and KFC intimidated, their entry blocked.
The authorities’ use of ‘civilian’ enforcers to break up such protests was a well-rehearsed tactic, it usually proving more acceptable than police batons and pepper spray. This time however the sympathy of those not directly involved had abruptly turned from passive observation into something more assertive; violent scuffles had spread along the mall, several shop fronts smashed, the police finally forced to intervene.
Within an hour the mall had effectively been cleared of the anti-war protestors, workers erasing all evidence of the violent confrontation well before Saturday opening. Officially no injuries had been reported and it had been left to social media to reveal the true cost of such public dissent. One image had quickly spread across the world’s news media: a young woman on her knees, face bloodied, two police standing over her with batons raised – the message to those advocating peace was now very clear,
The Beijing authorities had resisted the temptation to block the various images and video clips, initially regarding the demonstration and the resultant outcry as a fairly minor example of the expected opposition. Government policy in the South China Sea was hardly likely to gain unanimous public support and they were happy to try and weather the storm, the Politburo’s policy on human rights already subject to worldwide disapproval.
However, Beijing’s indifference soon changed once Saturday had started to edge towards mid-morning. As with the Russian protests of the previous year and the more recent turmoil in Washington, social media was the catalyst for a surge in numbers of those heading to Wangfujing Street. Virtually all of them seemed happy to show their support for the peace movement, many obviously prepared for the long haul. This was a more determined and assertive movement than the routine protests of the past decade and also far wider, with Hong Kong and Shanghai just two of several cities simultaneously holding some form of march or protest.
The large police presence around Wangfujing Street quickly encouraged a change of tactics, a crowd several thousand strong heading west towards Tiananmen Square. Like the other demonstrations across China, the Beijing protest didn’t really have a key leader or even a single organising group; people were primarily drawn in by a spontaneous desire to vent their frustration, fearful of what the next few days and weeks might bring.
China had grown accustomed to letting an elite clique of supposedly able men guide their country forward, the stability and prosperity of the last fifty years an acceptable trade for a very restricted form of democracy. But recent events had shaken the foundation of that understanding, China’s leaders taking its people along a very dangerous and unclear path.
The biggest demonstration – far outstripping that in Beijing – was in Hong Kong, and by noon an estimated ten thousand people had found their way to the accepted meeting point of Victoria Park, several hundred students then leading the way to the high-end shopping area of Causeway Bay. Even though the warning signs had been seen and understood, the authorities’ response was slow and inadequate, the police unable to prevent the protestors from gaining a foothold on their chosen territory. The two sides seemed to be on a collision course, both gathering their forces and preparing for the inevitable confrontation and defiance, the violence of the past never forgotten.
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