The Johns Hopkins Gazette: May 17, 1999
May 17, 1999
VOL. 28, NO. 35


Letter From Nanjing

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Editor's note: The Hopkins-Nanjing Center for Chinese and American Studies is the only American educational institution with a permanent physical presence in China. Established in 1986 by Johns Hopkins and Nanjing universities, the center offers a one-year graduate program for up to 50 Chinese and 50 American and international students who are pursuing academic, government or business careers dealing with China and the Asia-Pacific region. It is located on the campus of Nanjing University. The letter that follows was written by American co-director Elizabeth Knup in the wake of the NATO accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.

May 10, 1999

Dear All,

It is now Monday evening at 7 p.m. in Nanjing, and the situation here in the city and around the center has been calm today. I have spoken to Tony [Kane, executive director of the Hopkins-Nanjing program] a few times over the weekend, and to Paula [Burger, vice provost for academic affairs and international programs,] and Steve [Szabo, associate dean for academic affairs at SAIS,] this morning. I will attempt here to outline the situation.

The Hopkins-Nanjing Center

First of all, all of us at the center are extremely safe. Both Nanjing University and the city of Nanjing went to extraordinary lengths to ensure the complete security of the center throughout the weekend. I have no fear of harm coming to our students, faculty or staff. Now, a brief history.

The news of the NATO accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade became common knowledge throughout Nanjing around 7 p.m. on Saturday, when the evening news broadcast the event. There was an immediate outburst of emotion on the part of Chinese people everywhere, including the Chinese students at the center. Satuday evening there were student protests beginning around 9:30 p.m. and lasting until about 1:30 a.m. or so. For most of the evening the groups of protesters were large (around 1,000 in each group that walked by the center). The students shouted slogans such as "Down with America" and "Blood for Blood" and "Long Live Peace." Most groups as they moved around the city stopped at the center gates to shout slogans, and then they moved on. While a bit disconcerting, the crowds were in control and seemed well-organized. However, most of the protests took place about 15 or so blocks from the center; I am told tens of thousands of students gathered while citizens watched.

By the time the protests started, most students were inside the center already, although there were a few at the bar at the Sheraton. We did not allow any students to leave the center that evening and tried to contact those living off campus and those in the bar. One by one they came in, having met no difficulty. However, one married student living off-campus who rode his motorcycle to the center around 11 p.m. was chased by about 10 people shouting slogans at him. He arrived safe but shaken. Throughout the night students watched the news and ran to the window to see each passing group. Emotions were running high, tension was also high, but all were safe.

On Sunday we allowed international residents of the center to go out until 1 p.m., after which time we required that they return to the center. We were able to find all students living off-campus and move them into the center as well. Everyone assumed that the protests on Sunday night would be larger than those on Saturday since students had a day to prepare and it was still the weekend. All day I was in contact with the U.S. consulate in Shanghai and with other Americans around Nanjing, and we were gathering stories about what was taking place around China and around Nanjing. Around midday we learned about the events at the Chengdu consulate, where students scaled the wall of the compound and burned the consul general's home. This heightened concerns about our own security since we, too, are surrounded by a wall. Later we also learned that a poster went up at Nanjing University encouraging students to protest in front of the center. (The center is the only American institution in Nanjing of any size, and some local residents believe that we represent the U.S. government in Nanjing.)

These two pieces of news sent us all into overdrive in terms of security planning. We had several visits throughout the day from the Public Security Bureau, the local police and Nanjing University officials. Late in the afternoon the head of the Public Security Bureau for the entire city of Nanjing came to the center and remained at the center until nearly 11:30 p.m., sitting in the lobby, watching the street. As well, approximately 50 uniformed police were stationed around the outside of the center and who knows how many undercover police as well. Several were stationed in our gate house.

At one point in the late afternoon several university students came to the gate and wanted to come in. They were refused and staged a brief sit-in in front of the gate. They eventually left, but this made us realize that if students were to gain entrance to the center, then 50 police on the street would be of little use. We decided, therefore, to have about 30 of them inside the center. They discreetly moved in around 7 p.m. and spent most of the night in the cafeteria. We announced to all center residents that the police were here and that it was for their security.

As the night wore on, one modest group of protesters came by the center but moved on quickly. Much to my surprise and relief, no other protesters came by at all on Sunday night. (This strikes me as extremely significant. It is clear to me that someone at a very high level with influence over the students' actions made it very clear that the center was off limits.) By midnight, the police left the building, most students were in bed, and we rested easy. It had been a long, tense day. I learned this morning that 15 blocks away (the same place as the night before) between 20 [thousand] and 30,000 protesters were out, some until 4:30 a.m. This brings me to today, Monday. Classes were held as usual. International students were allowed to come and go but were encouraged to use common sense and be back by dark.

I do not anticipate any incidents of student protests tonight. However, we will have one member of the local police in our gate house with our gate guard. I feel that the height of the protests has passed here in Nanjing. Throughout the past three days, from what I have gathered, Nanjing has had the least violence (a few KFCs and McDonalds were closed down) of any major Chinese city.

I know you are all awaiting this report. I cannot stress enough how well we have been protected here. We have certainly been the safest corner of Nanjing for the past three days. In another email I will report on the mood within the center, which is good, given the circumstances.

Tuesday, May 11

Suffice it to say, emotions are running very high, a fact which informs almost every interaction and every action here. The center, however, has weathered this period well.

By Monday night, protests in Nanjing had all but ceased. Nevertheless, the anti-American flavor of all the protests, the stories coming in from other cities around China that had experienced violence against American people and property, the anxiety of expectation and the sudden lack of communication among the students had created a palpable tension.

At the same time, many Chinese students felt stymied. Unbeknownst to me, Professor Chen [the Chinese co-director] had forbidden them to join their fellow students in the streets, and they felt deeply frustrated that they could not express solidarity with students across China. The emotion they felt upon learning of the bombing of the Chinese embassy was profound and difficult to contain and reflected grief for the death of Chinese people and outrage at the breach of sovereignty such a bombing (nearly unanimously considered to be intentional) represented. As Chinese citizens living together with Americans, the Chinese students and staff were subject to name-calling by other Chinese people, calling them "one who sells out the motherland" or "America-lover." Many of their classmates outside the center passionately vowed to stop studying English and to give up dreams of studying in the United States. This was difficult to endure.

So, by Monday night, when the students had called a meeting, there were so many misunderstandings, so much emotion and so many rumors that the tension was really rising. Approximately 80 students, several faculty from both sides and almost the whole administration responded to a notice, put up earlier in the day, which read, "Discussion in room 303 at 8:30 p.m. You know the topic."

Classroom 303 was filled with people, chairs jammed together, people leaning against the walls, sitting on desktops, some halfway out into the hallway. The room was warm, as spring is quickly turning to summer in Nanjing. Some students wore black armbands, a traditional symbol of mourning in China. In light of the events of the past few days, it took a certain kind of courage for the students--both Chinese and international --who called this meeting to sit in front of their classmates and teachers and ask for a discussion of deeply emotional events.

Professor Chen and I arrived a bit late and were offered chairs by the doorway. We were on the periphery, where we should have been. The meeting was called by the students and was meant to be for them. We were onlookers, hopeful for the success of the meeting and yet unsure of the outcome.

The meeting began with a presentation on the events leading up to and including the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Kosovo. There had been several student-led discussions on the NATO mission in Kosovo over the past month or so, and most students already knew that there were differing views on the mission itself, the plight of Kosovo refugees, the humanitarian aspect of American foreign policy and its legality under international law. But this meeting was much different, and the issues were suddenly more personal and less academic.

When the floor opened for discussion, the first student to speak admitted that we may never know whether the bombing was a mistake or not but that this particular meeting should focus on where we go from here, and, specifically, how do we get through this at the center. He received applause.

The next to speak was an American student. He apologized to the Chinese students for the tragedy in Kosovo and agreed that apologies from NATO and Washington, thus far, have been insufficient. He then talked about some posters put up in the center on Saturday night, right after we learned of the bombing, that were extremely anti-American in content and which offended and hurt many of the international students. The posters went up unsigned (a rule in the center requires that all posting be signed). He appealed to all students to express their opinions but also to take responsibility for them. "Now we international students do not know who holds these opinions and have to suspect all the Chinese students. Now we don't know who to talk to about those opinions." He wanted to understand why the posters went up; he did not wish to condemn anyone for putting them up.

Some minutes of silence passed; a hand went up, and a Chinese student admitted he was involved in writing some of the posters. The posters were not directed at the international students and faculty of the center, he said. The deep emotion felt by Chinese people everywhere upon learning of the bombing of their embassy and the deaths of Chinese citizens resulted in an overwhelming need to express anger, frustration and grief in the only way they could at the time. He apologized.

Another hand went up, and another Chinese student took responsibility for writing some of the posters. This student had spent most of Sunday, while the international students were confined to the center, making trips to the local dumpling seller with orders for food for his international friends. His participation in writing the posters was a shock, but his explanation of his emotions was heartfelt and sincere. It seemed this meeting would go well.

Many issues which have gone unaddressed over the past two days were brought up and misunderstandings cleared up. While the Chinese students were involved to the extent they could be in a movement larger than themselves, the international students were experiencing a deeply personal affront. While the Chinese students separated the anger they felt toward America for the bombing of the embassy from their individual relationships inside the center, the international students perceived actions at the center as directed at them as well.

One international student broke into tears describing what it felt like to be an American in China just now. And another began to cry as he described how it felt to think he might lose China after so many years devoted to studying Chinese and coming to know Chinese people. When he said "I love China" with tears in his voice, I too began to cry. Chinese students made impassioned statements about how they had not meant to target their friends at the center, about how they were concerned for their safety, and drew a distinction between the emotions they felt over the bombing and how they felt about the people in the center.

The whole experience was incredibly moving. What happened at that meeting would not have been possible at any other educational institution in China at this time. For American students and Chinese students to sit around a table, admit their feelings and reach out to comfort each other was what the center was established to create--an atmosphere in which the two cultures would try to find mutual understanding.

While there are still specific issues to be addressed, and while there will never be agreement on some of the specifics of the bombing, I feel that Monday night created a foundation which will make it much easier to talk about other areas of disagreement. I am not idealistic about this. There will be some students who will never try to understand, and there are certainly emotions, grudges, hurts and angers which will never be expressed. We are not totally healed as a community--and we may never be with only a few weeks to go. But I was very proud of the students in that room for trying to do the most difficult thing they have had to do all year.

So, Monday night some of the tension broke. I sense that things are going fairly well among the students. There has been a badminton tournament. I see students together. I am just very grateful that we had the meeting Monday night, which means we can have more in the future.