A Taste of Mob Rule in China

In a chilling demonstration of people-power, anti-Japanese riots exposed Beijing's vulnerability in a crisis.

Although the worst of tensions between China and Japan seem to be behind us for now, the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands fracas continues to rock the two countries' relations with no easy solution in sight. I happened to be in Beijing for a conference during that mid-September week in which protests and violence across China crescendoed (surprisingly, the Chinese hosts did not cancel the meetings), and the ugliness of Chinese nationalism was on full display. It was the week that included September 18, an infamous date seared into most Chinese memories as the day that Japan invaded Manchuria 81 years ago. To be frank, as the date approached, I had some personal trepidations because I am often mistaken for Japanese in China.

But the dramatic few days of nationalistic outbursts gave way to calmer temperaments with a sort of efficiency that led many to believe the government orchestrated the protests. I'd quibble with that characterization because much of the nationalism, even if it wasn't manifested violently, was genuine and potentially dangerous. In retrospect, I thought sharing several pictures and stories, including a bizarre incident that involved me personally, can provide a fuller range of Chinese nationalism.

Courtesy of the Ministry of Tofu, a desperate and terrified woman is caught in a mob of anti-Japan protesters because she was driving a Japanese branded vehicle. Needless to say, the image quickly went viral on Weibo and immediately galvanized condemnation of the protesters' mob mentality. One commenter angrily wrote:

They are so damn worse than beasts. The car was smashed anyway, despite the female car owner's repeated pleading. In the chaos, her child was also missing...is this the so-called anti-Japanese nationalism? Cry, cry.

The usually acerbic-tongued Han Han, Chinese blogger extraordinaire, also inveighed against the outright violence and destruction of property:

No one who has bought a Japanese car thought they were supporting Japan's violation of China's territory; they just wanted an economical, fuel efficient car with easy upkeep...I suggest that when media organizations cover news about Chinese people seriously violating one another's rights, that they keep the word 'patriotism' out of it. How is this loving your country?

Han Han's sentiments were shared by other Chinese, particularly among a middle class that is more conscious of property rights and would prefer to protect their Toyotas and Hondas. Such was the case for one clever Beijinger, shown in the photo below (courtesy of Chris Janiec, an American who teaches at China Foreign Affairs University and part of my delegation):


An ostensible Chinese flag decal is slapped over the Toyota logo, even though the car was manufactured in southern China. But what struck me was the large bumper sticker with white characters stretched across the bumper. It says: "The owner of this vehicle bought it before Japan's base crimes. But from now on, will boycott Japanese products!" In other words, this was a plea to not smash his car by appealing to righteous patriotism -- we can protest the Japanese but still protect our property! Such pragmatic patriotism was common among the Chinese middle class, many of whom were unnerved by scenes of store burnings and topsy turvy Japanese cars in the street. By then, even the official CCTV has changed its tune. In virtually every newscast I saw, the message was uniformly "rational patriotism" (理性的爱国), a clear reflection of the fear at the top that these demonstrations may spin out of control.

In one instance, it did almost spiral out of control, when anti-Japanese sentiment was momentarily redirected to the United States. The now well-known incident of a protest mob attacking Ambassador Gary Locke's car as it was pulling out of the embassy (see video below):

What took place was that a rowdy group of protestors were walking from the Japanese embassy, a short distance from the US embassy, only to encounter Gary Locke's vehicle and surrounded it. Although this clip doesn't seem to be the extended version, a longer clip shows a contingent of security forces that materializes in about 1:30 minutes to disperse the crowd and keep the peace. As we all know now, the car escaped unscathed, though it could have been worse.

Throughout that day, I had heard various bits about this attack, but had little time to read the detailed reporting. And little did I know that I was about to enter into a bizarre situation the next night that brought me close to the attack incident.

I was heading to a function that evening, along with a few young westerners who were studying and working in Beijing. As many people have noted, flagging down a Beijing cab is now next to impossible. That night was no different, as we had no luck for 30 minutes and was already late. Then a small, black hatchback pulled up to the curb, the driver asking us if we needed a ride. I negotiated a 20 yuan fare and all decided that it was worth it since no cab was in sight. These private "cab" rides were relatively common in China, and neither of us thought twice about it.

Yet as soon as the car pulled away, I noticed there was something odd about the driver. Not only did his eyes seem to be glazed over, he was flooring the hatchback that felt like it would disintegrate if I kicked it. He then turns to us.

Driver: Are you guys Americans?

Us: Yeah.


Driver: So did you hear about the attack on your ambassador 骆家辉 (Luo Jiahui, Locke's Chinese name) earlier today?

Me: Yeah.

Driver: I was the attacker. But the car was very well made, I couldn't do much damage to it. (pause) You can check it out, they said they have my picture on the Internet now. Do you think I'll have trouble getting a visa to the US in the future?

Something seemed terribly wrong here, and I was rendered speechless. Was he mentally unstable or telling the truth? But that was irrelevant, we seemed to have been picked up by a criminal who tried to damage our ambassador's car. My mind raced, we needed to get out of the car. But the tiny jalopy continued to barrel down the wide Beijing boulevard, and I soon noticed that he was not taking us to our destination. There was little I could do but to repeatedly insist that he pull over. To my surprise, after no apparent response after several prods to stop, he eventually did. I threw some RMBs at him and we scurried out.

Relief. But in my haste, I neglected to take a photo of the vehicle to send to authorities.

Needless to say, I do not wish to ever be caught amid Chinese nationalism. The Chinese government itself understands that all too well, and has so far succeeded in taming the brush fires before they become a sweeping conflagration. No one wants to imagine what may happen if they are no longer able to.