Los Angeles Times, June 9, 1989, Friday
CHINA IN TURMOIL
Shanghai Resumes its Frenetic Pace: After 4-Day Paralysis, Protest Barriers Fall and Buses Run
By KARL SCHOENBERGER, Times Staff Writer
SHANGHAI – The streets of Shanghai were in chaos Thursday—that is, things had started returning to normal.
Buses careened up narrow streets, blasting their horns to scatter unruly hordes of bicycle commuters. After four days of tense paralysis, China’s most populous city resumed its notoriously frenetic pace.
Down came nearly all the protest barricades that irate students and workers had built after news of military atrocities in Beijing reached this major commercial center Sunday night. And as the mass transit system revved back to life, the unnerving calm gripping Shanghai over the past week gave way to a reassuring bustle.
But an undercurrent of anticipation remained in the city of 12 million people. Martial law has not been declared here, as in Beijing, and Mayor Zhu Rongji issued assurances Thursday that he opposes bringing in troops to restore order.
“The municipal party committee, the municipal government and I myself have never considered the use of the army,” he said in a half-hour television broadcast.
But wretched poverty and overcrowding keeps Shanghai’s masses near the boiling point.
“There is enormous resentment in this city about rising prices and stagnant wages,” said Charles Sylvester, the U.S. consul general in Shanghai. “If the control system begins to fall apart and the social fabric comes unglued, this could be a very dangerous place.”
Although Shanghai has been relatively peaceful since the pro-democracy protest movement ignited among Chinese students in mid-April, some ominous signs have emerged over the past several days.
An angry throng of students and workers torched a passenger train Tuesday night, after it plowed through a human barricade of protesters. Six people were killed, and six others injured. In official media reports denouncing the ensuing mob violence, the deaths were explained as resulting from a “traffic accident.”
Thursday afternoon, students said police used truncheons to beat a group of people demanding that officials at the Huangpu district office, near the waterfront, lower its flag to half-staff to mourn the hundreds—possibly thousands—killed in Beijing.
University campuses were quiet, with classes suspended after many students called a strike and left the city to return to their homes late last month. But rumors circulated at East China Normal University, one of the two major centers of student unrest here, that the school’s student leader was missing and believed under arrest.
Still, in an indication that the standoff with authorities was winding down, demonstrators did not replace barricades that city workers dismantled overnight, as they had done earlier in the week in a routine that Sylvester characterized as their “choreography” of protest.
That pattern saw students, joined by workers involved in a spontaneous wildcat strike, commandeering buses and trolleys, placing them across major intersections and letting the air out of their tires. City workers would clear the barricades at night so that trucks could enter with produce and essential supplies. Then the vehicles would reappear to block morning rush-hour traffic, plastered with facsimile copies of Hong Kong newspapers and handbills summarizing broadcasts by the Voice of America and British Broadcasting Corp.
The strategy forced people to ride bicycles or walk to work, causing enough disruption to sabotage economic production and send a bold message of defiance to authorities without technically declaring a general strike, which would be illegal under Communist rule. As many as half of Shanghai’s work force was idle at midweek, Sylvester estimated.
On Thursday, however, only one key location remained barricaded—the intersection by People’s Park on Nanjing Road in the heart of the commercial district. The three dusty buses parked in the middle of the crossing were manned by scores of workers—mostly lumpen proletariat types in their 20s and 30s, who said they were angry with the government. The motivation of their protest had a distinctive economic color.
“I’m protesting because I love the country, but I’m very poor. And my income is getting smaller all the time because of higher prices,” said Xie Jin, who has been boycotting his $260-a-month job in an electrical parts factory for the past five days. Inflation is running at about 30% a year in Chinese cities, according to the government.
Want Affluence, Freedom
“We want to live well, and we’ll support the government if it allows us to live well,” Xie said, adding: “We want a little freedom and democracy, too.”
Shanghai was hardly gripped by an atmosphere of clear and present danger, however, a contrast to the situation in Beijing and perceptions outside China. Still, the city’s foreign residents were leaving the country, though many had serious reservations about doing so.
At the U.S. Consulate, an employee of a U.S. construction management company complained bitterly that his company had ordered him to leave, even though he felt it unwarranted. An American student who had been on Tian An Men Square hours before troops made their deadly assault Sunday morning said she found Shanghai somewhat tame—so far.
“I’m totally torn between wanting to stay here, and also realizing that (trouble could break out) any time, and I don’t want to be part of it,” said Cherise Miller, 22, of Laguna Beach. “The place is supposed to be on the verge of civil war, but they’re playing Madonna outside the dormitory where I’m staying.”
Except for a few stragglers, Shanghai’s foreign business community had cleared out by Thursday, leaving joint venture operations up to local Chinese employees. The expatriate staff at the deluxe, 1,008-room Hua Ting Sheraton Hotel, which now has an occupancy rate of about 20%, was preparing to leave town next week, according to their shipping agent.
“I sent my wife home today—it seemed like the calm between the storms,” said Michael Hall, the Shanghai representative of International Trade & Consultants, a company based in Monte Sereno, Calif., that ships household goods.
“This is a very strange place, very unpredictable,” said Hall, who has been posted in Shanghai three years. “Business people are seeing what it’s all coming to. And I think a lot of them won’t be coming back if the present (hard-line) government survives. I count my blessings and hope things will last until I can pack everybody up.”