Saturday, April 16, 2005

Shanghai Riots

When one is living in Shanghai, you expect to get woken up by drilling, banging and all the other stuff involved in the overnight construction of a sixty-thousand storey high rise outside your window. What one does not expect to get woken up by is rioting. The buggers wait nearly 16 years to do it and they've got to do it one the one morning when I'm nursing a hangover. And they've got to do it outside my front door.

I was in bed, at 9.45am or so, when I first awoke to the crowd' s roar. As I later found out, the masses were more than one kilometre away, near the Japanese consulate. Not only that, but I was wearing the earplugs that I had been part of my goodie bag at the NWA press conference two days prior. And I still woke up. That's one loud roar. The journalistic instincts eventually get the better of me and, at midday, I head out.

I join the crowd on Yan'an Lu, heading west. I am almost instantly handed a leaflet demanding that Japan cedes possession of a collection of islets in the East China Sea (Diaoyu Dao). I tuck it into my pocket. In next to no time, my small group has amlgamated with a huge stream of people, all heading in the same direction. There are traffic cones and policeman directing us.

We march in the shadow of the raised-section of Yan'an Lu, surrounded and funnelled by the giant concrete supports that hold up the four-lane highway above us. Having turned away from the main road, I stop, momentarily, to watch a section of the throng abusing a shopkeeper. He stands on crutches, young son beside him, trying to remonstrate with his tormentors. They are having none of it and continue to throw bottles - and abuse - at him. His crime, it appears, is to have had Japanese script on his shop's sign. It's not the main sign but beneath the big Chinese characters are a few small Japanese slashes and dashes.

A little farther on, I come across a portly middle-aged man chucking stones at an already battered metal sign. He's throwing from point blank range and is grinning maniacally. I can see no reason for what he is doing but he is having a great time so I leave him be. The Japanese consulate, when I finally come across it, is splattered in paint. The crowd is huge here. One man shouts 'Japanese pigs' as he hurls a quarter-full bottle of coke at the consulate. He lets go a little bit too late and the bottle smashes into the head of the girl just in front of him. It sums up the day really. Idiocy all round.

There's a little bit of a crush going on at this point of the march so I duck out, through a bush, and walk alongside the main crowd. A huge organised police operation is allowing a few marchers out a few at a time. Their chants and shouts die away as they realise they are no longer with the throng. It's a professional operation. Anyone would think the Chinese police have been managing riots for years.

For an 'nationalist' riot there was little to fear for non-Japanese foreigners like myself. I spotted one chap burning a poster of Koizumi clad himself in an England football shirt. There were lots of pretty young things there looking as if they had just come in from a night out on the tiles, taking pictures of events using their slimline cameras.

Down next to the consulate itself, I see one member of the riot policeman responding to a protestor's plea for him to hand back a stone which had fallen shy of its target (a consulate window, presumably). He slyly kicks it back into play and it is shortly thereafter hurled.

I get the sense that many of the demonstrators are here out of curiosity - and for fun. After I decide to leave the masses, I come across one Teppenyaki store which had been completely ransacked. A couple are outside, posing hand-on-hip and taking pictures of each other. They are grinning and having a great time. Within minutes of being torched, the place had become a tourist attraction.

All in all, the day was pretty sickening. It was all pitchfork-style mob behaviour. Smashing up of Japanese stores, destruction of Japanese cars, stoning of the Japanese Consulate by grinning, brainless, imbecilic people with their slimline Sony digi cameras. Nice to see people getting passionate, sad - and worrying - to see normally docile, respectable people behaving like yobs, just because they can.
NOTE: On May 2, during a walk down Nanjing Lu, I come across a Japanese noddle bar which has people queuing around the block to get in. I can't help but think back to April 16 when the protestors had implored each other to boycott all Japanese goods, stop buying Sony cameras, Toyota cars etc.etc. Nanjing Lu during the May holidays suggests that commerce, shopping and damn tasty Ramen will invariably triumph over ideology in modern China.

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