A Toyota dealership set on fire by rioters (see details below).
After days of anti-Japanese protests in cities throughout China – some of which have turned into violent riots – questions are beginning to emerge about the authorities’ uncharacteristic laxity in dealing with the demonstrators. Our Observer Sui gives us the view from China.
The protests were sparked by a row between China and Japan over a group of tiny islands in the East China Sea, known to the Japanese as the Senkkaku islands and to the Chinese as the Diaoyu islands. Both claim these uninhabited rocks, which are located near an important shipping lane, in an area thought to be rich in oil deposits. When Japan purchased the islands from its private owner last week, Chinese demonstrators took to the streets in anger.
Over the weekend, protests sprung up in over 80 cities, and continued on Monday and Tuesday. Some of the demonstrations descended into violence, with rioters attacking Japanese-owned businesses and even damaging Japanese-brand cars. One Toyota dealership located in the eastern city of Qingdao explained on its website that on Saturday, rioters smashed the store’s windows and burned it down. Its owners claim neither the police nor the local fire station came to their help, despite their repeated phone calls.
Police officers did clash with rioters in several cities over the course of the weekend, but many Chinese Internet users are now asking how the authorities – who rarely allow street protests – even let the situation get to this point.
This video, courtesy of Eric Fish, shows some skirmishes as thousands of protesters gathered outside of the Japanese embassy in Beijing on Saturday. There was a large police presence, unlike in some other cities.
Police escort an anti-Japanese march in the southwestern city of Kunming. The video was published on YouTube on Tuesday.
“These protests do not seem very spontaneous”
Sui is a student living in China.
The authorities control Chinese society very tightly, in particular when it comes to public dissent. All protests against the government are stifled at once. When people try to organise demonstrations through the Internet, often, more police turn up than protesters. But in this case, the authorities and state media have encouraged the protests. The media has repeatedly called for people to express “rational patriotism” over the islands feud. So these demonstrations do not seem very spontaneous.In fact, it seems that the police even participated in some, if not all, of the protests. The New York Times’ Chinese-language site reported that in Beijing, plain-clothes policemen instructed people to wave flags via a loudspeaker labelled “police.” Many Chinese Internet users have also claimed to spot plainclothes police officers acting like regular protesters and leading the demonstrations. Several of them posted photos to the Internet of protesters they claimed were police officers, but these were rapidly censored.“It’s easy for the government to exploit patriotic sentiments to distract from domestic problems”Usually, the authorities are quick to censor all Internet search terms associated with particular protests. But this time, throughout the weekend, users of Weibo [the Chinese equivalent of Twitter] could freely search for any terms relating to the anti-Japan protests. They have clamped down a bit since then, however, and now the terms “anti-Japan” and “anti-Japanese” are censored. However, users can still search for the terms “protest” or “Daioyu islands”, which is currently one of the top trending searches.Trending topics on Weibo afternoon. #1: "918", which refers to Tuesday's anniversary marking the 1931 invasion of Manchuria by Japan. #2: "Diaoyu Islands."It’s easy for the government to exploit patriotic sentiments to distract from domestic problems they’ve recently encountered – protests over social equality, cost of life, environmental issues, and corruption. In short, as long as the authorities don’t lose control of these protests and there’s not too much violence, they are to the government’s advantage – and that’s why they let them continue.China has been in dispute over these islands for a long time, but neither China nor Japan has done much about it until now because they share major economic interests. However, China is undergoing a once-in-a-decade power transition, with the 18th Congress of the Communist Party slated for next month. So I believe those currently in government want to show how tough they can be on foreign policy in order to hang on to power.