Xiao Yang was our neighbour’s Ayi (maid) and she frequently found an excuse to pop around to our house to gossip with our Ayi, Xiao Zhao. She had gained entry some 30 minutes previously on the pretext of some urgent need for some herb or other and here she still remained, chattering excitedly about her plans for the weekend.
My wife, Heather, looking to practice her Mandarin and to hopefully nip a war and peace length chat in the bud, intervened to ask Xiao Yang what she had planned. A day’s shopping perhaps, or maybe a nice family outing to one of the nearby water towns ? On being informed that that Xiao Yang was to visit the Japanese consulate my wife ventured ;
“Wow…are you applying for a visa to visit Japan ? It’s a beautiful country, especially in Spring. Oh hang on a minute, won’t the visa section be closed at the weekend ?”
Both Ayis responded with peals of laughter. Eventually Xiao Yang said “Visit Japan ! Why would I want to go there ? No, a group of us are going down to throw stones at the Japanese consulate. Actually, there should be thousands there. It should be great fun…”
So there we had it. What better way to unwind at the end of a busy week than go throw stones at a neighbouring country’s consulate. Why not ? Indeed could it maybe take off in Britain ? I can imagine the conversation ;
“Fancy playing golf this weekend Rich ?”
“No, sorry can’t make it. Going down to throw stones at the French embassy. Really cheesed off at the way the Common Agricultural Policy is skewed in their favour so I thought I’d go and give them what for….”
Unlikely I know but tempting nevertheless….
Anyway, my wife is not often lost for words but Xiao Yang’s admission took the wind out of her sales for a good minute or so. Eventually Heather asked why they would want to do such a thing. Both Ayis looked at Heather as if she were slightly backward and Xiao Zhao replied “Because the Japanese are very bad of course !”.
It was April 2005 and the Chinese government had been cranking up the anti Japanese propaganda for some time. In a constitutional democracy, the people’s discontent can be vented in numerous ways. You can join or even set up a pressure group, lobby your mp, organise a protest march or even feel comforted by seeing your government critical views articulated by various news outlets. Ultimately, the people can sack and replace those who govern via the ballot box.
In China there are no such mechanisms. No such safety valves. Lacking any constitutional means to effect real change, the only viable route left available to the people is that of violent revolution. The Party is well aware of this. It is after all how they seized power in the first place. The prospect of the people turning on the Party instils fear in to the Communist elites. Despite the propaganda, they know they lack any real legitimacy and the idea that the wind might change and they could fall from their position of privilege certainly concentrates the minds of those with so much to lose.
So if discontent builds, how can the government disperse it ? Simple. The oldest trick in the book. Find a scapegoat and let the people vent their pent up fury on them. In the case of China. What better scapegoat then Japan ? After their conduct in China 1931-45, the state can stoke the anti Japanese fires with ease. And stoke them it certainly does. Seemingly every night Chinese TV airs some soap opera, re-living the Sino-Japanese war. For present day Chinese, the horrors of Nanjing are as if they were yesterday.
In April 2015 the rhetoric had been ratcheted up further however. The pretext appeared to be official Chinese anger at Japan’s sanctioning of new school textbooks which downplayed or completely ignored Japanese war crimes committed in China. A case of the pot calling the kettle black maybe from a regime whose own text books are less than honest in their treatment of the Great Leap Forward, The Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen to name but a few.
Th real reason for the Chinese government’s ire however was more likely the recent proposal that Japan should become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.
Whilst clearly fanning the flames of anti Japanese sentiment, the Chinese government appeared to be simultaneously standing back and denying any official orchestration of the anti Japanese protests. The protests were “spontaneous” not government organised the official channels claimed however as one of my colleagues pointed out, this didn’t really tally with the fact that the authorities had erected lots of temporary signposts giving directions to the Japanese consulate !
Anyhow, I had booked that Friday off work for a ‘long weekend’ but discovered early Friday morning that I had left my inhaler at work. My asthma is hardly acute however it is psychosomatic. In short, once I’m aware that I don’t have access to my inhaler, the anxiety rises and I am more likely to have an attack. It was a beautifully sunny April morning so I decided I’d take a leisurely walk in to work, pick up the inhaler and then take a taxi back home. It was a pleasant two mile walk along shaded tree lined avenues from my home in Hongqiao to my office in Gubei. I set the ipod to shuffle, inserted the earphones and set off.
To reach my office in Orient International Plaza I had to pass by the Japanese Consulate in Wanshan Rd. I wasn’t concerned however as the anti Japanese protest was scheduled for Saturday and it was only Friday morning. When I reached Wanshan Rd however I was shocked to find that a 40’ shipping container had been laid across one end of the road. Must be to help with crowd control tomorrow I thought and too lazy to contemplate a longer detour, I determined to simply pass around the shipping container and carry on along Wanshan Rd.
As I passed the Japanese consulate to my right I couldn’t help thinking how serene it seemed. I could even here the birds singing in the trees. What a contrast there’ll be tomorrow I thought when the crowds will gather to vent their fury. And, what part will our neighbourhood’s Ayis play in it all ? Will they be content to chant and jeer or will they be at the forefront, throwing missiles ?
Unsurprisingly there was another shipping container strategically placed at the other end of Wanshan Rd. Again, I simply skirted around it and then….Oh my God ! My blood froze.
On the other side of the container I was confronted by around 250 Chinese soldiers. Complete with rifles. Staring at me… I felt like the boy in the film Empire Of the Sun who when clambering over a mound in pursuit of his toy glider comes face to face with Japanese troops. I felt a growing panic. Would they think I was a spy ? Or maybe a western journalist who had come to report on the security arrangements for the anti Japanese demo ? After what seemed an age but was probably no more than 10 seconds I broke the silence. I explained in my best Mandarin that I was simply on the way to my office, which was just over there. I needed my medication because I was feeling ill…… After a few seconds passed one of the soldiers smiled at me and gestured for me to carry on through.
Greatly relieved, I got my inhaler, hastily hailed a cab and got the hell out of there !
I didn’t really have the appetite to go watch the anti-Japanese protests that weekend, preferring instead to rely on the news reports. By all accounts a lot of bile was vented. Bottles and stones had been thrown at the consulate, many Japanese restaurants had their windows smashed and quite a few Japanese cars were vandalised, regardless of the nationality of the drivers.
The following Monday morning back from the front line, the Ayis returned without fuss to their domestic duties. Hoovering the carpets, washing clothes, boiling rice….. I couldn’t help thinking this all must seem a little mundane to them after their weekend excitement. Were they perhaps experiencing the boredom, the sense of anti climax that many soldiers feel after being demobbed back to civvy street ?
I watched our Ayi, the gentle Xiao Zhou, tenderly nursing my 2 month old son. She reached for a bottle. Not this time to throw at the old enemy’s consulate but rather just just to feed young hungry Jack….