Amid ongoing territorial spats between China and Japan, several anti-Japanese demonstrations have been reported across China (see CPI blog here). The latest demonstrations followed Japan’s recent move to nationalize disputed islands in the East China Sea, called Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan. The group of five small uninhabited islands are controlled by Japan but claimed by both countries.
Earlier this month, despite China’s strong objections, the Japanese government purchased three of the islands from private ownership to nationalize them. This unprecedented move started in April when the right-wing governor of Tokyo, Ishihara Shintaro, planned to buy the islands and build infrastructure as part of his extreme nationalist agenda. Japan’s central government launched a bid to prevent purchase of the islets by Tokyo’s metropolitan government.
Despite its claim that the decision to nationalize the islands was taken to block Ishihara’s provocative plan, strong opposition from the Chinese government and public has remained.
Japan’s move has not only elicited a tough response from the Chinese government but it has also fuelled deep-rooted anti-Japanese sentiment in China. One day after Japan announced the nationalization of the islands, protesters gathered outside the Japanese Embassy in Beijing to protest against Japan’s act. The next day, more anti-Japanese rallies were held in several major Chinese cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. The mass protests escalated over the weekend of 15-16 September, reaching a peak on September 18, the anniversary of the 1931 Mukden Incident which had precipitated Japan’s invasion of northeast China.
Hundreds of thousands of people participated in demonstrations in over 100 Chinese cities to show their anger towards Japan. Some protesters turned violent, attacking Japanese-owned businesses and smashing Japanese brands of car. The recent anti-Japanese demonstrations in China are not only the largest and most widespread, but they have also resulted in the worst vandalism since the two countries normalized ties in 1972.
The Chinese government apparently tolerated the public protests at the beginning. Such a large number of people could not have demonstrated if the government resolutely opposed them. In September 2010, when a serious diplomatic row had been sparked by Japan’s arrest of a Chinese skipper whose fishing boat had collided with Japanese patrol ships off the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, Beijing sought to curb popular protests against Japan to avoid escalating tensions. Consequently, anti-Japanese demonstrations that month were small, lightly attended and scattered around only a few Chinese cities, under heavy police presence.
In contrast, large-scale nationwide protests occurred last week with police escorting the marchers. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman commented that the recent widespread anti-Japan protests reflect the Chinese public’s resolve to safeguard sovereignty over the islands, urging the Japanese government to heed the Chinese people’s strong appeals. Beijing had seemed willing to take advantage of the protests to increase its bargaining power in the territorial dispute.
However, after the latest demonstrations turned violent, with acts of vandalism, the public safety authorities deployed armed police before events could spiral out of control or turn against the Chinese government. Tight security remains around the Japanese diplomatic missions and businesses as protests could resume amid growing anti-Japanese sentiment among the Chinese populace.
Beijing has taken a two-pronged approach to increase pressure on Japan by tolerating anti-Japanese popular protests at first, then starting to curb them when they threaten domestic and/or international interests. However, it appears difficult to maintain a balanced approach while playing both side of the issue. Beijing faces a dilemma in dealing with popular nationalism.
Given the growing public outrage over the recent territorial dispute, anti-Japanese protests could easily escalate, damaging social stability and China’s international image. But, by suppressing protest too harshly or appearing too keen to re-engage with Japan, Beijing could suffer a backlash from an angry public. Thus, the current nationalist outburst may significantly limit China’s available options to ease tensions over the territorial row.
Su-Jeong Kang is a PhD candidate in the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham
Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.