A Chinese woman accused of painting Washington, D.C. monuments green isn’t just another tourist behaving badly

Green’s not Lincoln’s color.
Green’s not Lincoln’s color.
Image: Reuters/Larry Downing
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A 58-year-old Chinese woman traveling on an expired tourist visa has been charged with splashing green paint on a cathedral in Washington, D.C. and linked to the vandalism of other national sites in America’s capitol. The woman, Tian Jiamei, is the latest embarrassment for Beijing, which has been trying to rein in the behavior of millions of Chinese nationals who travel abroad every year.

As we’ve reported, Chinese tourists behaving badly has become all too common. There were the parents who let their children urinate in the middle of restaurants, others who ignored attire rules for entering Buddhist temples in Thailand, and those who left their mark for causing general pandemonium in Singapore. In May, a 15-year-old from Nanjing etched “Ding Jinhao was here” on an ancient Egyptian temple along the Nile.

But Tian’s case is different. If the allegations are true, she appears to have been deliberately and somewhat systematically defacing landmarks rather than acting inappropriately because of a culture gap. On Friday, July 26, green paint had been found splattered on the Lincoln Memorial. When Tian was arrested the following Monday inside the Washington National Cathedral, she was holding a can of green paint. A pipe organ inside the church was covered in the paint, as well as urine and feces, police said. Prosecutors said another monument in downtown Washington was found to have green paint on it as well; a witness said she had seen Tian attend church in the area. Symbols in green paint were also found on the Smithsonian museum in the National Mall.

In China, news of Tian’s case—she is currently in jail in Washington, awaiting trial—has spread across online news sites and forums. On Sina Weibo, bloggers have posted over 800 comments about Tian. Several bloggers questioned whether something darker motivated Tian. One wrote, “Yes, Tian’s actions were wrong and she should take responsibility for her behavior, but what’s behind the action? Had she suffered some injustice before?”

It’s a good question. Municipal police and other authorities have been making headlines in China for handling lawbreakers too harshly—in one case police beat a watermelon vendor to death. Just last week, a man in a wheelchair set off a bomb in Beijing’s airport, in protest of a beating by police that left him paralyzed years ago. (He had been running an unlicensed motorcycle taxi service.) The cynicism of other comments about Tian also seem to reflect a bitterness about the state of justice in China now. One blogger wrote, “She really didn’t want to come back and this was her way out.” To which another said, “Staying in jail is still better than returning home.”

Referring to the heavy police presence in Tiananmen Square in Beijing the site of democracy demonstrations in 1989, one blogger said, “She couldn’t vandalize in Tiananmen so she had to go to the US.” If convicted, Tian faces up to 10 years in prison and a fine of $5,000.