Protests present government balancing act ahead of leadership transition

Zhang Lei attended his first ever protest on Sunday. A migrant worker from northern Hebei, Mr. Zhang, along with this two friends, walked down Beijing’s East Third Ring Road to the Japanese Embassy on a cool and clear Sunday morning.

“We are here because we hate Japan,” said Mr. Zhang (23), whose name has been changed as he did not want to be identified. “Japan has stolen China’s islands, so we want to express our anger.”

Mr. Zhang and his friends came to the protest armed with empty plastic bottles. They waited patiently before being ushered in by police, who allowed the protesters to march in groups of a few dozen in front of the Embassy. “Return our islands!,” Mr. Zhang and his friends shouted, as they hurled bottles, eggs and stones at the Embassy’s gates.

Tens of thousands of Chinese, across age-groups and reflecting a cross-section of society, have turned out in more than a dozen cities this past weekend in protests triggered by recent tensions over the disputed Diaoyu or Senkaku islands in the East China Sea.

In Beijing and other cities, the Chinese government, which usually does not tolerate protests and tightly restricts public gatherings of any kind, has appeared to encourage the protests. While paramilitary forces and riot police have prevented protesters from entering Japanese Embassies and Consulates, they have also allowed large crowds to gather without dispersing them.

The government has portrayed the gatherings as a reflection of the Chinese people’s anger at Japan’s move last week to purchase three of the disputed islands from a Japanese family, recognised by Tokyo as the owner. In recent days, State media have published a barrage of commentaries hitting out at Japan, while in some Chinese cities, local authorities have even sent text messages encouraging citizens to show their patriotism.

In Beijing, the protests on Saturday and Sunday were for the most part orderly, although a few protesters clashed with riot police when they tried to climb over railings in front of the Japanese Embassy. Local authorities, in fact, appeared to even be closely coordinating with protest groups, with volunteers handing out megaphones and bottles of water.

But many of those who gathered in Beijing on Sunday did so on their own accord. Like 79-year-old Mr. Wang, who was dressed in a replica People’s Liberation Army uniform from the 1940s and sported a green cap with a large red star. “I am here because I want the government to be strong towards Japan and the United States,” he said.

Many protesters also appeared to be critical of the government’s handling of the dispute, reflecting the tricky balancing act the government has foisted upon itself by stoking nationalist sentiment weeks ahead of a once-in-ten year leadership transition.

“This current government is too weak!”, said one taxi-driver. “We have no strong leader like Mao Zedong. Why can’t the government use our two million soldiers to claim back the islands? The government even used the military on June 4 [1989, on the student protesters at Tiananmen Square]. Do we only use the military at home?”

Many protesters marched carrying photographs of Mao. While police forces vastly outnumbered protesters in Beijing and Shanghai, local authorities appeared to be unprepared in other cities, where violence was reported on Saturday and Sunday.

Japanese restaurants were vandalised, department stores were ransacked and Japanese-branded cars were torched, with protests reported in Xian, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Nanjing and other cities. In southern Shenzhen, police had to fire tear gas and use water cannons to disperse protesters. In Qingdao, a Mitsubishi elevator factory was set on fire while a department store in Changsha was ransacked. A Rolex shop was also looted in the chaos.

Many bloggers online were critical of the violence, although those out on the streets The Hindu spoke to were encouraging of the incidents. “This shows our anger,” said a young migrant worker from the northeastern Dongbei region. His four friends nodded in approval.

Some 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 the Chinese Twitter equivalent Sina Weibo, hit out at the violent mobs in a message that was forwarded more than 51,000 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”.

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