The Rule Of The People, p.25Christopher Read
Chapter 10 – Sunday, November 20th
Shanghai, China – 04:17 Local Time; Saturday 20:17 UTC
Huang Meilin stood and watched in silence as extra police were bussed in, her vantage point giving her a good view of the gathering reinforcements away to the east, the sight of an occasional army uniform a worrying escalation. The emergency lights from the police lines were a dazzling distraction, most people unable to sleep, everyone anticipating some sort of attempt to drive them from the square come morning. It was eerie and unnerving, the crescent moon visible in the night sky even though People’s Square was as bright as day, long sombre shadows dancing and weaving amongst the tents and sleeping bags.
Meilin was perched atop the outer facade of the Shanghai Museum, its massive granite blocks only recently celebrating twenty-five years at the very heart of the city. The age of the exhibits inside could mostly be measured in terms of centuries and millennia rather than a few years, a testament to the enduring power of China and its people. Proof of that could easily be seen whichever way Meilin turned, the area ringed by skyscrapers, Shanghai a thriving metropolis of over twenty-five million.
The museum stood at the southern extreme of People’s Square, with the Municipal Government Headquarters marking the northern edge some two hundred metres distant. Beyond that lay the People’s Park, the area’s origins as a race course still apparent despite the formal gardens and play areas with their twisting paths.
The Square and Park were the accepted places for protestors to gather, simple to get to with the Government building an easy and convenient target. Sixty thousand had gathered there during the protests in 1989 but this time the number was slightly less impressive, ten thousand at most, the overwhelming majority aged under twenty-five.
Meilin was in her second year at Shanghai University, her political experience more one based on cynicism than outward rebellion. Like many of her peers, she saw the Politburo as an outdated haven for the old if not necessarily the incompetent, the pace of change still too slow and inconsistent. The Politburo’s bullying tactics against China’s weaker neighbours now threatened to destroy the country’s relative prosperity, together with those freedoms that had been so long in coming. The needs of the vulnerable or the young – never that high on the Government’s list of priorities – would continue to be ignored and Meilin was determined not to allow such arrogance and selfishness to go unchallenged. Her own future too was now in jeopardy.
Shanghai University had been a hotbed of vocal resistance over the years, regularly leading the fight against corruption and human rights’ abuses; yet it had often proved difficult to turn the students’ opposition into something more effective, many unwilling to risk the potential consequences of imprisonment or expulsion. The Government might claim that it had nothing to do with the attacks on the USS Milius and the Russian city of Khabarovsk but its later actions suggested otherwise, the murder of so many in Vietnam an unpalatable and embarrassing truth.
The public mood across Shanghai was one of increasing resentment, the scenes from Hong Kong and the subsequent censorship creating a palpable backlash. The ten thousand protestors in People’s Square was twice as many as the previous day and it might well double again by the afternoon, the authorities obviously choosing to act before the numbers became too great. The police could expect a disciplined if determined welcome, the protestors supposedly working to an agreed plan, one where violence was not even a last resort.
Beside Meilin stood her boyfriend of three months; Biao was a year older but for both of them this was a unique experience, neither quite sure what to expect or how to react. Like many of their university friends, they didn’t want to meekly abandon the Square but their options were limited, the forces arrayed against them well prepared for trouble.
Dressed in full riot gear with shields and batons, the police reinforcements were already starting to form a line several deep, the obvious intention to sweep in and drive the demonstrators west and reclaim People’s Square. More riot police had moved to the north to protect the Municipal Building and the Grand Theatre, buses used to blockade the south and west. The Square was now effectively cordoned off from the rest of the city, the police looking to channel the protestors west along Wusheng Road, and even to Meilin’s inexperienced eyes, there seemed little chance they would wait until morning.
It was another ten minutes before a raucous announcement blared out from a loudspeaker, the police going through the motions of ordering the protestors to pack up and leave; they were given just fifteen minutes in which to comply, the consequences of not doing so left unsaid. Not that it mattered, and everyone knew what to expect, a bloody nose or a few bruises the best many could hope for.
A mood of apprehensive expectation settled over the Square, several thousand anxious eyes watching the police preparations, everyone now fully awake. Several of the protestors had previous experience as to the brutal side of the Shanghai police, their persistence born of the conviction that they were in the right; yet there was still no single leader that everyone would recognise or obey, a score of diverse groups acting together purely out of mutual interest.
An earlier rumour that armed troops had been seen waiting in the streets further back had mostly been ignored; now whispered instructions were quickly passed from person to person, no-one quite sure how effective their tactics would be. With encouragement from those gathered around the circular fountain, people slowly started to move, not west away from the line of police, but towards them, the demonstrators closing together to become a dense band rather than separate small groups. People started to link arms, the front row standing defiantly just thirty paces from the police. Meilin and Biao scrambled down to the ground to join near the centre, the human barrier in places some fifty people deep.
The police watched impassively, sizing up the challenge and waiting patiently while the last pieces moved into place. Meilin couldn’t really see what was happening but she sensed the moment when the police started to move forward, a ripple of anticipation coursing through the waiting throng; the background sounds suddenly became more strident with the clatter of batons on riot shields mixed in with the shouts from the front rank of protestors.
From further back came a familiar chant of defiance, anything to give courage to those who feared what the next few minutes would bring, and the mantra was rapidly taken up by hundreds of others. The police tried to push the front rank back or break it apart, intimidation their main weapon with no real attempt to use excessive force. The row of people flexed and swayed but held firm, the rear lines spreading out to prevent any attempt to outflank them.
The pushing and shoving continued for several minutes, a fruitless exercise which only served to confirm that more drastic methods were needed. Abruptly the police’s tactics changed, shields and batons now used to batter people aside, blood spilt for the first time that weekend.
Some people ignored the agreed protocol of non-violence and tried to fight back; most retreated, a fresh group of demonstrators stepping forward to be bloodied. Every beating, virtually every blow, was caught by a hundred cameras; social media access might be blocked but the images would still find their way to the world media – it might just take a little longer than normal. The police were well aware of adverse publicity and cameras were unceremoniously ripped from people’s grasp, phones smashed underfoot. Very slowly the crowd was driven westward, one painful metre at a time; the more tenacious of the protestors were either squirted full in the face with pepper spray or pulled from the arms of their comrades to be handcuffed and thrown into the back of a police van, some beaten unconscious for no other reason than as a warning to others.
Urged on by those brave enough to take a lead, the protestors’ tactics abruptly changed and they started to sit down wherever they were, arms entwined to form a close-packed mass. The police advance slowed, people dragged aside, others battered and kicked, anything to get them to move.
Meilin sat with head bowed, con
Scores were arrested but despite the early hour more demonstrators, young and old, had started to gather in the surrounding streets, the encircling police struggling to hold them back. Missiles began to rain down on the police, the anger of the past erupting into a series of violent confrontations along the outer fringe of People’s Square.
Meilin saw little of any fighting, hundreds of people still between her and the approaching police, the chaotic sounds coming from virtually every direction warning her as to what was to come. Abruptly she began to feel queasy and seconds later tears started to stream down her face; there was no smell, the wispy white tendrils of tear gas slowly floating south across the Square. Unlike some, Meilin and Biao had come with extra supplies of water, it willingly shared out to help wash away the effects of the tear gas. The main confrontation now seemed to be close to the Grand Theatre, police reinforcements having to be moved to prevent the units there being overwhelmed.
With the situation threatening to deteriorate further, the use of tear gas became more widespread and it became impossible to simply sit and let the stinging smoke take control. Meilin clambered to her feet, eyes and nose streaming, her throat feeling as if it were on fire; she had to get where she could breathe and half-blinded she staggered towards the fountain, trusting that Biao would follow on.
People were still sitting arm in arm and Meilin struggled to negotiate a clear way through, her desperation growing with every trip and stumble. Others soon began to follow her example and just a few metres short of the fountain she was hit hard from behind, dragging another person down with her as she crashed to the ground. Quickly she scrambled to her knees, left arm almost numb, her ears bombarded by new sounds. Above the clamour of the fighting came the unmistakable rattle of gunfire, not a single weapon but several, and Meilin twisted around trying to understand what was happening. Scores of protestors streamed past her, the combination of tear gas, pepper spray and police batons finally winning through.
Fifteen metres away a tall figure in full riot gear emerged from the chaos of the thinning crowd, the policeman’s face obscured by visor and gas mask. He stood uncertainly, before seeming to notice Meilin cowering helpless close to the fountain.
Meilin was still struggling to see, eyes blinking rapidly, the rest of her body frozen in fear. The policeman strode towards her then suddenly he seemed to lurch back a step, Meilin watching bewildered as he collapsed to the ground, the dark stain of blood slowly spreading out from beneath his body.
Even though she knew the man had been shot, she simply stared at him, Meilin more confused than frightened, there no sense that she personally was in any danger. Strong hands dragged her upright, Biao pulling her in close and guiding her towards the safety of the Museum.
Meilin couldn’t help but take a glance back: the centre of the Square was clearing rapidly, the police also pulling back. If it was a victory then it was unclear which side had won, both police and protestors looking to have paid a heavy price.
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