XI’AN, China – In the heart of one of China’s most famous dynastic capitals, now a modern metropolis of eight million people, Li Jianli lay partially paralyzed on a hospital bed with his skull smashed and his ability to speak reduced to a few simple sentences – “yes”, “thank you” and so on. It was only recently that Mr. Li began to regain his ability to move and speak. The recovery has been slow, painful and tenuous, his relatives said.
Then there is the emotional trauma. When Mr. Li was asked one recent afternoon to talk about the events leading up to his hospitalization, his wife quickly stepped in to change the subject. âEven now, when he talks at length about the events of that day, he gets angry and starts to cry,â she said later in the hallway. She asked to be identified only as Ms. Wang.
What happened to Mr Li, 51, is the ugliest episode known among anti-Japanese protests that rocked cities in China last month after a long-standing dispute over an island chain burst into fury. Mr. Li’s only offense, apparently, was driving a Japanese car. He ended up being the victim of a mob who stopped the car on a wide boulevard in the middle of Xi’an.
Now, even though anti-Japanese sentiment remains strong, Mr. Li has become for many Chinese a symbol of what can go wrong when latent nationalism runs out of control.
“These protests could be a very important turning point in China’s democratic politics,” Bai Yansong, a prominent state television commentator, said on his “1 + 1” show. âJust because you have a just cause doesn’t mean the process can be illegal. “
He added: “They use the outer garments of patriotism, but in fact they are committing a crime.”
The violence done to Mr. Li by a protester who hit his head was vividly captured by a passerby in a video which has become an Internet phenomenon. Police in Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi province, have launched a manhunt to locate the perpetrator and appealed to people across the country for help. Police announced last week that a man had been arrested. Xinhua, the state news agency, said the suspect could face the death penalty if convicted.
As the land dispute between Japan and China over the Diaoyu Islands – referred to as Senkaku by Japan – still brews, another diplomatic outbreak could spark more protests and riots. At rallies last month, Ai Weiwei, the dissident artist, filmed a video of protesters outside the US Embassy in Beijing, attacking a sedan carrying Ambassador Gary Locke. Many Chinese have attributed the recent purchase of the islands by the Japanese government to an American conspiracy.
In a sign of continued hostility, Japanese automakers on Tuesday announced that sales of Japanese-branded vehicles in China had fallen over the past month.
In Xi’an, a slogan on a billboard near the airport highway reads, âThe Diaoyu Islands belong to China.
Today, there are hardly any signs of protests in central Xi’an. Witnesses said that it took city workers a few days to clean up a pool of Mr. Li’s blood, but the street returned to normal. People who look closely at the cars, however, can see that there are now small Chinese flags affixed to many of them, especially those made by Japanese brands.
Many liberal Chinese and foreigners have questioned whether the central government has stoked the protests, or at least allowed them to continue unabated for too long. During the protests in Xi’an, which were among the most violent, police were present, but some officers did not try to stop rioters from overturning Japanese-made police cars, several witnesses said. The attack on Mr. Li took place within 500 feet of a police station.
Mr. Li was driving home with his wife on September 15 in a white Toyota Corolla after they spent the morning reviewing building materials for their son’s new apartment, Ms. Wang said. Not far from the west gate of the old city wall, they encountered a crowd of protesters waving Chinese flags, chanting slogans and smashing cars.
Protesters quickly surrounded the Corolla and used batons, bricks and bike locks to smash the car with the couple inside.
The two men got out of the car to ask the protesters to stop. Details of what happened next are obscure, but the internet video shows a stout man jumping on Mr. Li and kicking him four times on the back of the head with a bicycle lock. In the video, the high pitched sound of metal hitting against the skull can be heard above the din of the crowd. Ms. Wang cried out for help as she sat on the floor trying to stop the blood from flowing from her husband’s wound.
As the protesters continued to smash the car, a passerby shouted, “Can we save this guy first?” We are all Chinese. Did you start to think of him as a Japanese?
With the help of a few passers-by, Ms. Wang dragged her husband across the street and waved for a taxi. In a hospital, Mr. Li underwent brain surgery.
âIt was complete chaos; my heart was racing, âMs. Wang said. “How can they be so cruel? “
She added: âWe heard that at the time the police did not dare to intervene. If they had intervened, the situation would have become even more chaotic.
Last week, Mr. Li was able to take a few steps for the first time since being hospitalized. He is due to have another surgery in six months. Doctors say he may never fully recover. Ms. Wang said that Mr. Li had been the family’s main provider.
âIt’s the kind of thing you see on TV,â she said. “We never thought this could happen to us.”