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A few months ago a friend and I got into a debate about China. Forget constructive engagement," I argued. Forget embargoes, trade sanctions and all the rest. The way to foster political liberalization and free market capitalism in the huge country is to somehow pump "Baywatch" into the homes of all its people. You know, a kind of 'Radio Free Asia' for the David-Hasselhoff-deprived. If China would just succumb to American pop culture like the rest of the world, my thinking went, it couldn't be long before it adopted our values as well.
The fact that I stand by this argument probably says something about my depth of familiarity with the China question: I'm a casual if concerned observer of the nation's ongoing struggles. What I know about the country comes form the newspapers, this summer's Tibetan Freedom Concert in New York and ninth grade Social Studies.
So yes, it's true that I don't have as good a grip on the problems facing China as I do on, say, the problems facing the New York Knicks. Still, I feel like I have enough to conclude that there's some pretty bad stuff going on over there. And I'm confident that at least some of that bad stuff is being organized by the government.
So when it was announced that President Jiang Zemin would speak at Harvard, I found myself facing a peculiar, foreign impulse: I had the vague beginnings of what one might call "the urge to protest." At first the idea struck me as so misplaced that I nearly laughed it off. But as I followed the coverage of Jiang's American tour, his facility in avoiding any head-on confrontation started to irk me. Eventually I decided that it wouldn't hurt if Jiang--a man who just last week called the government-sponsored shootings at Tiananmen square "the correct conclusion"--knew what it felt like to be jeered at, and even detested.
Early Saturday morning, I stumble out of bed and head off toward Memorial Hall. And as I approach the Yard, it strikes me how easy a time Harvard has in transforming itself to resemble a tiny police state. Lock a few gates, throw together some police stations in prominent areas and presto.
Approaching Sanders Theatre, it's obvious that the heavy law enforcement presence has infected the atmosphere in front of the Science Center, where barricades have been set up on both sides of the path leading to the building's central revolving doors.
"Ma'am, you cant go through there," shouts an officer at a woman slithering around the barrier in hopes of gaining access to Littauer--a building in the exact opposite direction from the site of the speech. The woman objects, but the cop's not caving. Once you put the police in charge, it seems, there's no room left for a sensible, case-by-case approach to these kinds of situations: the rules are the rules, and that's that.
Still, it would be wrong to take the 'police state' metaphor too far. Because when a young man approaches one of the officers stationed near the Science Center and asks "Where's the protest?" the cop doesn't take the comment as a challenge to her authority, or that of the police power she represents. She doesn't bust his knee caps or even give him a dirty look.
Instead--and with a smile--she gives him directions. I decide to follow the young man toward the demonstrations, and soon I'm standing just outside the Graduate School of Design, in a throng of China supporters and protesters many hundreds strong. By my rough estimate (and much to my surprise) there are easily as many Jiang supporters as there are critics, with an extremely strong Asian presence in both camps. The sides trade Chinese songs and English slogans ("One China. No Separation. We Love China" is countered with "Jiang Zemin. Bullshit. Jiang Zemin. Bullshit") and there are plenty of media types on hand to give the event an air of importance.
When Jiang's arrival seems imminent, I find myself sandwiched between a two-person team from WB-56 and an Associated Press photographer. The WB photographer is in the process of negotiating with a pair of women standing in front of him--he's trying to get them to stop waving their flags so that his shot of the motorcade will be unobstructed.
The women agree, but once the police sirens are within earshot, all hell breaks loose. A bunch of protesters break through barriers and enter the street, moving directly between the photographer and the motorcade.
"Oh Jesus," the guy yells as his angle gets blocked off. His partner shouts at the police--"Get them out of there!"--but it's to no avail. The clip has already been ruined.
Once the motorcade passes out of sight, the crowd immediately loses most of its enthusiasm, as if its only real purpose in gathering was to place a particular image in Jiang's personal visual narrative. And yet I can't help but realize that if the Chinese President was sitting on the wrong side of the car as it turned past the crowd, there's a good chance he missed the whole thing.
Surfing the web in my room just a few minutes after noon, the top story on Nando.net (a compendium of Associated Press reports) is already "The Harvard Protests." The piece notes the existence of pro-Jiang demonstrators as an afterthought, a move I find disturbing given the make-up of the portion of the crowd that I saw. What's more, a slightly later edition of the same story states that Jiang took "several questions from members of the audience," a claim that rests somewhere between misleading and false.
Rereading the Associated Press accounts, I get the eerie feeling that all this time, my faith in the accuracy of its coverage has been a bit too knee-jerk. If they can't nail the stories which I have first-hand knowledge of, what leads me to believe that they've got their act together on the ones that happen far away?
Dan S. Aibel's column appears on alternate Wednesdays.
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