My first China blog concerned misty-eyed reminiscences with our alumni. So this, the second in my china trilogy focuses on the differences more than the similarities.

It is commonplace these days to claim we are all just the same across our interconnected world: at least for the global elite of which most British citizens are a part by accident of nationality.  But the superficial commonalities, like the ubiquity of the iphone or global spread of coffee shops disguise a deeper truth.

On a bright Sunday morning I stumbled out of the campus hotel of USTB (University of Science and Technology Beijing) into the late autumn sunshine. Predictably too late for the standard dorm breakfast of boiled eggs, soup (of indeterminate provenance) and boiled greens I headed for the campus supermarket in search of  a carry out coffee and yoghurt that had not been sweetened to death.

Coffee in hand, I headed to the park in the middle of the vast campus  – think Russell Square and sprawling London University buildings.  Although the architecture was admittedly more reminiscent of East Germany circa 1975 than Bloomsbury.

I watched the local grandparents playing with the toddler they invariably care for and became aware in the middle distance of a vast number of students some carrying flags assembling on the open plaza adjacent to the university swimming pool.  Hundreds, although it seemed like thousands, had appeared from nowhere within minutes, flags waving and students jumping spontaneously on to the steps to address their colleagues in loud determined tones.

In my student days, I would have been over there in seconds. I recalled the professor who in 1984 took me to task for “demonstration-itis” (it was the height of the Thatcher years).  Now past my half century, and enjoying my first coffee for days, my pace was more leisurely.   Just as I was about to join the demonstrators there was water everywhere. Clouds of water that obscured the demonstrators and a swarm of campus police buggies arriving from every corner.

I was astonished – was I witnessing a reawakening of the spirit of Tianamen? Was I privileged to be here and to see it all begin. After all there must be more dissent on campuses than official channels would have you believe. It is human nature to protest. But what was the issue, what was the grievance that produced thousands of flag waving students at 10 on a Sunday morning?

As the police opened road barriers the, now wet, students dispersed as quickly as they had appeared. My curiosity was rampant. The grandparents in the park were no use, they had barely a word of English. The first student on a park bench, motioned to a colleague who, he gestured, had English.

Trying to contain my curiosity I asked “what was going on?”

“The annual campus residences fire drill “ came the reply.  I was deflated, what was left to say.  Water cannon being tested, police to organise, students en route to a flag event in a park…

How much I had let my own preconceptions run away with me….

Roused from my thoughts I asked the nice Chinese student what he was studying.

“Security” came the instant reply.

I thought of my promise to take my kids to the new James Bond first Saturday back from China.  My imagination was running riot again.

But for the record, “security” translates as health and safety in this context!

Written by Wendy Alexander, Vice-Principal (International)