China Crisis: Fear of the Crowd

China Crisis: Fear of the Crowd

By Hugh Riminton
For The Bali Times

GUANGZHOU ~ The roar beats like storm gusts against my hotel window. It is the sound of human voices. If they are using words, they have lost any separate identity. It is simply the sound of a crowd, the elemental unit of Chinese history.

Like the police officers who sprawl in the lobby of this hotel opposite Guangzhou train station, I am tired. I know from standing among the people, for days and nights on end now, that they are also, individually, tired. Some are spent. They stagger, some supported by others, some in tears, as they proceed from barricade to crowded barricade in their journey towards the possibility of a train ride home.

But the crowd itself is perpetually refreshed.

As each new few thousand are released from one barricade, to run with their bags for a good position at the next barricade, the energy and the sound is as urgent as it was a week ago.

It is no wonder the Beijing authorities fear the crowd above everything. It was the masses that brought the communists to power. The government now is barely recognizable in its policies from those Maoist revolutionaries. But they understand the power of mass emotion.

So, they have produced a troop surge. Some 306,000 Chinese troops have been deployed, here, in southern China. That is nearly twice the total US deployment in Iraq. The soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army are fighting what Beijing is rather sweetly calling “the war on wintry weather.”

The people crammed and crushed against barricades are perfectly ordinary people. After four years in China, I identify with them not quite as a native, but enough to understand as perfectly reasonable their desire to get back to be with their families for the Chinese New Year holiday.

The police and the soldiers seem genuinely interested in helping them, to ease their suffering. Again and again, I have seen these agents of state security racing beneath the feet of a thundering crowd to re-right a toppled pile of suitcases, to ease pregnant women and children and the frail and the simply over-emotional to a place of greater safety.

On Friday, a woman called Li Hongxia fell before the rushing crowd. By the time she was lifted clear, she had been trampled by people powerless to avoid her. She died the next day in hospital. Li worked in a watch factory in Guandong. She was trying to get home to Hubei province.

But by the count I received a few hours ago, 483,000 people have made it onto trains. By the surf-like roar from the street outside, many, many more are still anxious to try.

Hugh Riminton is a CNN correspondent based in China.

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