The Chinese government on Tuesday looked to contain anti-Japanese protests that have spread in recent days to more than a dozen cities and triggered violence, amid escalating tensions between the two countries over disputed East China Sea islands.

On Tuesday, which marked the sensitive 81st anniversary of the Japanese invasion of China, thousands participated in protests across the country which, for the most part, remained peaceful. Hundreds of Japanese businesses, from the factories of Honda and Nissan to department stores and restaurants, remained closed after violent incidents were reported over the weekend.

After Japanese department stores in central China were ransacked, restaurants trashed and a factory set on fire, authorities appeared to tone down their rhetoric and restrict protests on Tuesday, indicating they had been caught off guard after initially encouraging citizens to vent their anger. In their first arrests over the violence, authorities said they had arrested seven people in Guangzhou for attacking Japanese-branded cars and three others for vandalising restaurants.

College students in Beijing, who were encouraged to protest over the weekend, were told to not join any public gatherings on Tuesday. “The political environment is sensitive now,” students at one leading university were told in an email message. “Do not attend group activities or protests”.

Many residents were sent a text message by the Public Security Bureau, or police authority, on Tuesday morning as authorities anticipated huge crowds to mark the anniversary of the Japanese occupation. “Let our citizens be reasonable and orderly… and listen to the police!,” the message said.

The moves to clamp down on protests suggested the authorities, who had encouraged protests over the weekend, had been caught off guard by incidents in some cities, according to analysts.

“The government has carefully controlled the situation, but maybe in the beginning they did not think [violent incidents] would happen,” Qiao Mu, Director of the Centre for International Communication Studies at Beijing Foreign Studies University, told The Hindu.

Some protesters have been critical of the government’s handling of the dispute, describing its actions as “weak”. On Tuesday, many protesters marched with photographs of Mao Zedong, and said in interviews China needed “a strong leader today” like Mao – a nostalgia that analysts said was likely to trouble today’s leaders. Leaders including Premier Wen Jiabao have, in recent months, been critical of attempts to revive Maoist ideas, most notably by purged Politburo member Bo Xilai in Chongqing.

“At the grassroots, people still think Mao is like a god,” Mr. Qiao said. “He went to war with India, with the U.S., and still has this image as a strong leader.” The Communist Party today, however, has viewed his ideology as being increasingly “out of date”, Mr. Qiao noted, and even allowed academics to criticise him although it continued to promote Mao in name as the nation’s founding father.

While most protesters were driven by nationalist sentiment, there were also some, albeit a minority, who raised more sensitive issues, Mr. Qiao pointed out. In Shenzhen, at least two people were detained after they displayed a banner calling for human rights, democracy and constitutionalism.

Tensions between China and Japan have escalated in the past week after the Japanese government said it would purchase three of the disputed Diaoyu or Senkaku islands in the East China Sea. China dispatched six maritime surveillance ships on Friday to patrol off the islands’ territorial waters.

China on Tuesday hit out at two Japanese activists landing on the islands. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei described their actions as “a serious provocation” and said China had made “solemn representation to Japan and demanded that the country explain its endorsement of right-wing activists.”

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