Over the weekend, anti-Japanese protests erupted in major cities across China. The noisy demonstrations followed the return of 14 activists who had sailed to Uotsurishima, one of the islands of the Senkaku chain in the East China Sea. Seven of them landed and planted a Chinese flag on August 15th, the 67thanniversary of Japan’s surrender in the Second World War. Tokyo deported the intruders two days later, after Beijing demanded their release.
The Senkakus, called the Diaoyus by China, have been at the center of a series of incidents between the two nations in the last several years. The US returned the islands to Japan in 1972, a year after China laid a claim to them. Previously, Beijing had, in effect, acknowledged Japanese sovereignty.
Japan’s release of the Chinese activists had seemed to end the latest controversy, which threatened to turn ugly after state media had stoked tensions. When the activists were on their way to the islands last week, the Global Times, controlled by the Communist Party’s People’s Daily, ran an editorial stating China would have to send warships if Japan stopped the Chinese. Soon after, People’s Daily itself entered the fray with an inflammatory commentary advocating China’s use of force.
Many Chinese, wherever they may live, vividly recall Japanese crimes against China in the first half of the last century, and these attitudes have been passed down from parents to children. In the People’s Republic of China, however, the Communist Party has institutionalized this process. Especially since the early 1990s, authorities have encouraged hatred of Japan with unrelenting indoctrination in the schools and incessant propaganda in society.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the demonstrations this weekend reflected an ugly nationalism. Symbols of Japan, like Japanese cars, were damaged along with Japanese-themed stores. One protest banner screamed, “Even if China is covered with graves, we must kill all Japanese.”
The Japanese, however, are not the only ones who have to be worried about the volatility in Chinese society. In China’s past, anti-Japan demonstrations have turned anti-government. The reason is simple: the government does not allow protests against its rule, so the Chinese take to the streets against the only permitted target: foreigners. Anger, however, is hard to direct indefinitely.
The Chinese government is a master of containing popular discontent. The authorities this weekend largely let the street protests run their course, and many China watchers believe anger will quickly cool as people finish venting emotions. The weekend expression of anti-Japan sentiment, most predict, will soon be forgotten.
The party, however, is creating the conditions for further disturbances. For one thing, it is doing little to relieve pressure in society, shunning both fundamental restructuring and even cosmetic change. Chinese leaders, in particular, are allowing corruption to run out of control.
At the same time, Beijing continues to provoke Japan. It’s not clear whether China’s officials were behind the sailing of the activists, who had left from Hong Kong, but Beijing is ensuring continuing instability by increasing its own probing of the Senkakus. As Major General Luo Yuan said last week, as he expressed sentiments prevalent in government circles, “Next time we should send 100 boats to the Diaoyu Islands.”
We are bound, therefore, to see more Chinese provocations against Japan and more anti-Japan street protests in China. And in the future, during one of those disturbances, that rage in society could be directed against the Communist Party itself.
Photo Credit: HongQiGong