BEIJING: Crowds of thousands of Chinese in at least a dozen cities vandalised Japanese restaurants, ransacked department stores, torched Japanese-branded cars and clashed with police as anti-Japanese protests threatened to spiral out of control on Saturday.

The protests unfolded amid rising tensions between the two countries over the disputed Diaoyu or Senkaku islands in the East China Sea.

Hundreds gathered in more than a dozen cities, chanting anti-Japanese slogans and burning flags. In Beijing, a crowd of more than a thousand threw bottles, eggs and mobile phones at the Japanese Embassy.

Tensions over the islands escalated on Friday as China dispatched six maritime surveillance vessels to patrol in the territorial waters off the islands, in a move seen as enforcing its claims. A day earlier, Japan angered China by announcing it was purchasing the islands from a Japanese family recognised by Tokyo as the owner.

A barrage of commentaries in the State-run media that have called for a strong response to the Japanese move appeared to have triggered the protests, which have been seen as being given a tacit green light by the authorities. The Chinese government usually restricts any public protests or unauthorised gatherings.

Paramilitary personnel were deployed in front of the Japanese Embassy in Beijing and prevented protesters from entering its premises, occasionally clashing with them. According to accounts online, police did not appear to take any action to disperse the crowds and prevent gatherings in any of the dozen cities where protests were reported.

But as reports of violence trickled in, it appeared that authorities had been caught off guard by the scale of the protests. Attacks on department stores and restaurants were reported in the cities of Xian in central Shaanxi, Changsha in central Hunan, southern Guangzhou and eastern Nanjing, which bore the brunt of the brutal Japanese invasion of China eight decades ago. More protests are expected in the lead-up to September 18 – the 81st anniversary of the Japanese occupation, which still evokes strong passions here.

Some incidents of violence appeared unconnected to the anti-Japanese protests. A Rolex showroom and a McDonald’s outlet were among the targets of the mobs. In Beijing, protesters chanted “Return our islands!”, throwing eggs at the Embassy. According to photographs posted on the Chinese Twitter equivalent Sina Weibo, many Chinese reporters had to cover their predominantly Japanese-branded camera in red Chinese flags. There were reports of Japanese-branded cars being

torched in several cities. Several Japanese department stores remained closed on Sunday, while restaurants displayed Chinese flags on their entrances to prevent attacks.

Many bloggers online wondered where the police were as mobs went on the rampage. “Today, the Mitsubishi elevator factory in Qingdao was set on fire, the Heiwado [a Japanese department store] in Changsha was broken into, the vandalism and rioting is so severe in Xian that many residents are scared to go out,” said a reporter in Guangzhou in a message on Weibo that was posted on the website Tea Leaf Nation.

“Many cities are in a state of chaos,” the reporter said. “ Is this any different from the Boxer [Rebellion] and the Red Guards [of the Cultural Revolution]?

Many voices online called for calm, and criticised the State-run media for whipping up emotions. The prominent real estate developer Ren Zhiqiang, who has more than 10 million followers on Weibo, criticised the violent mobs in a message that was forwarded more than 14,000 times.

“A group of thugs want to defend violent behaviour in the name of patriotism,” he said. “Vandalism and burning people’s private property does not prove you are patriotic. It only proves that you are a traitor, and betray the soul of the Chinese people”.

More In: International | News