Beating in U.S. Hits Nerve in China

A Homeland Security officer's alleged attack at Niagara Falls on a female tourist from Tianjin sparks public and official outrage.

By John M. Glionna

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

July 30, 2004

TIANJIN, China — The graphic front-page newspaper photo has played to the worst fears of this provincial river port city — showing a local businesswoman beaten so badly that her face appears a sickly black and blue. Her eyes are swollen shut.

The victim is a Chinese tourist who was recently attacked during an outing to Niagara Falls, on the U.S.-Canadian border. But the suspect isn't any violent criminal or quick-hit mugger. The man who allegedly punched Zhao Yan repeatedly and doused her with pepper spray is an inspector with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Officer Robert Rhodes is accused of throwing the 37-year-old gym equipment saleswoman against a wall, kneeing her in the head and striking her head on the ground. Rhodes, 43, was charged with violating her civil rights and faces 10 years in prison if convicted. He said he thought Zhao was with a man from whom officers had just confiscated marijuana.

The attack has touched a nerve with Chinese officials and the general public here. In what the state-run press has called an unusual move, Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing this week called on U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to launch a "serious and thorough investigation" into the July 21 incident. A Chinese-American trade group said the U.S. bears "unshirkable responsibility" for what it called a serious human rights violation.

For many Chinese, the attack confirmed their worst nightmares of foreign travel and raised concerns about the safety of Chinese nationals living abroad, especially in the United States. Some also say the attack of a woman by a male police officer illustrates the image of the U.S. as an international bully.

"I have been to many countries in the past for business purposes, and the United States is the most barbarous," Zhao told the state-run China Daily. The newspaper reported that Zhao has hired an American lawyer and plans to file a lawsuit seeking $5 million in damages.

College student Liu Peili said Zhao's experie nce illustrated the gap between the virtues preached by the U.S. and the reality of life within its borders.

"America always points its finger at other countries, including China, about their so-called human right violations," the 22-year-old Tianjin native said. "So why then should an incident as ugly as this occur right there in the U.S.? America always seems to do exactly opposite of what it tells other countries to do."

For many here, the incident harks back to the 1999 North Atlantic Treaty Organization bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, by U.S. warplanes. Although U.S. officials apologized for what they called an error, many Chinese have long thought the attack was intentional.

Some believe that Zhao's assault hints at xenophobic sentiment in the U.S. "America is a very safe place for people who live there," Liu said. "But not if it's not your country."

In this city of 10 million people an hour's drive from the capital, Beijing, the incident has promp ted days of media coverage, including two full pages in the Metro Express on Tuesday.

The paper has received 300 calls and e-mails from readers — most offering sympathy for Zhao and expressing anger at the U.S. Several businesspeople related similar tales of violence that occurred while they were traveling in the United States, and one Tianjin native living in Chicago said he felt afraid in America, according to a report published in the newspaper.

After the assault, Zhao received notes and flowers from some of the 2,000 Tianjin natives living in New York, Metro Express said, adding that she was approached by many "average Americans who just repeated, 'We are so sorry.' "

In recent years, only a handful of Chinese nationals have fallen victim to crime in the United States, newspaper reports say. Last year, however, seven members of a delegation from universities in China's Hunan province were killed in a traffic accident in central Pennsylvania.

Zhao told authorities that she and two friends were crossing the popular Rainbow Bridge near a U.S. Customs checkpoint when Rhodes attacked. For his part, Rhodes said in a statement that he grabbed a Chinese woman and two others ran away when he asked them to come to an inspection station. He said he used pepper spray on the woman when she swung her arms at him.

A business group called the Preparatory Committee of the Commission for the Promotion of U.S.-China Free Trade has criticized U.S. officials for the attack. The group said that, although it understood America's need to beef up security after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, U.S. immigration officers had no right to assault foreign businesspeople without first finding out the basic facts.

Shopping at a Tianjin supermarket Wednesday, Zhang Weihao said women were not humiliated this way in China. "Women are supposed to be respected everywhere in the world," he said. "But apparently not in America."