On the Street in China: A Report

I heard about the first poster calling for demonstrations against America and death to the American devils minutes before I walked into my Tuesday afternoon English class. According to my friend, who saw the poster, members of the Southwest Agricultural University English Department put it up – in other words, students of mine.

I looked hard at the freshman as I walked in and they looked blankly at me. I started talking about the assignment due the following Friday and they started murmuring to themselves. I had not paid too much attention to what had happened two days before on April Fools Day, but I soon realized the assignment would be on the backburner today. Irving, the patriot of the class, spoke up, asking me what I thought of the plane incident. The look in his eyes and the eyes of his classmates said I should answer wisely.

So I didn’t answer at all, brushing off the question and moving into the lesson. We did not get much done that day – the students did not feel like participating much.

After class I quick-walked to the wall where the poster should be and found it torn down.

I actually saw the second poster calling for action. It appeared the Sunday following the incident. It was from the university Cartoon Society and it started with a joke: "Are they trying to fool us on this holiday?" The poster encouraged students to pick up the only weapons available to them, pens, and express their opinions. No violent words, no call for demonstrations.

The only demonstration that took place was a teacher strike. They felt they were not getting paid enough – I agree with them. As I followed them around the school, two teachers whom I know broke off from the group and chatted with me. They cheerfully asked me my opinion on the plane incident, shook their heads as we mutually condemned the renewed tensions between our two countries and then skipped off to demand more money from the President.

The furious rage that followed the Embassy bombing is not to be seen. Instead, students express helpless frustration and workers express everything from indignance to indifference, but not fury. The majority of the people feel that the U.S. has no respect for China; that the US can insult China anytime it chooses without having to take responsibility – and there is nothing they can do about it.

Strikes and demonstrations and outbursts of anger are seen as useless, meaningless and dangerous to the stability of the nation. The last thing a developing country with a weak government needs is a mass protest that has no effect on the outcome of the negotiations. China also does not have the military or economic strength to actually do "anything real" so all the Chinese can do is keep working, mutter to themselves about the international bully and wait for an apology.

Most believe the US spy plane collided with the heroic Wang Wei on purpose, but nobody can actually say why. This is basically the media talking. The media also says Wang Wei was a hero, the US had been watching him for a while, the US wants to challenge China (militarily or economically) and that the US is bent on global domination. Chinese radio shows claim 60 percent of the US population agrees with China and CCTV – the Chinese CNN – takes the words of foreigners in China out of context to support China’s position. A Chongqing, Sichuan Province rag asked if the latest incident "was the result of another map error."

Newspapers make sure to publish any article by a foreign newspaper condemning US actions and/or supporting the Chinese position. Chinese agree with and believe the media and are confident that the international community is behind them and that all relevant international laws point in China’s favor.

But when I walk down the street to get some food, people smile and nod, ask me if I have eaten and offer me a cigarette. They all know I am American. They all know about the plane. But when I go to Pang Saar’s (Fat Third Son) restaurant, he’s more interested in what I want to eat than what I think about Wang Wei. His friends laugh with mild disgust when I bring up the topic and say they don’t read the papers.

"We common people are friends, let the governments sort it out," says one.

The guards I walk by every night on my way home stick their heads out the window and demand I stop for tea and a smoke. They listen to the radio all the time. They have most definitely heard the media’s onslaught on Xiao Bushi (little Bush) and his little government. But they laugh too – and quickly point out that these problems have nothing to do with us drinking tea and talking about girls.

The Washington Post reported that "Anti-American Sentiment" was on the upswing in China. But anti-American should not be confused with anti-American government.

Almost every university student in China wants to go to the US and make big money. Almost every university student in China feels the US government is an arrogant, violent, lying bully. People want nothing more than to make a little money, make some foreign friends and live in peace. The thought of war, hot or cold, is ridiculous and sad to them. The Chinese have nothing to gain from a cold war with the US and everything to lose.

WTO membership has been touted as the ticket to riches in the Chinese media. So my friends anxiously ask me if this problem will affect membership. It seems clear that the US is equally anxious about a rising Asian power and that a cold war will benefit a sole Superpower and Chinese resent this. People want to see headlines about US companies investing big bucks, not US carriers steaming for Taiwan.

"We are a developing country and all we want is to live a comfortable life with a T.V., some vacation, and a new washer and dryer."

Mentioning China’s "burgeoning expansionism" or war-hawks in the US elicits a bitter laugh. The people here who care about international affairs and politics – and there are not as many as there are in the US – see acceptance into the international community as their only hope of staving off an aggressive Super Power hell-bent on keeping China down.

The more international blunders the Bush Administration makes – scrapping the Kyoto protocol, various submarine flubs in Japan, selling arms to Taiwan, spying on other countries and killing their pilots etc. – the more confident the Chinese are that the international community will turn against the lone Power and force it to mend it’s ways.

Or as one English major hoping for a chance to study in the US said:

"Perhaps one day the world will strike like our teachers did, and the US will find itself without any friends."

Read more by Sascha Matuszak