Foreign threats seen as useful diversion from internal issues
BEIJING — As anger increases over the territorial dispute between China and Japan, Chinese authorities have been playing both sides of the issue by quietly encouraging recent anti-Japanese protests, then publicly reining them in.
Experts point to signs that the Chinese authorities have cleared the way and, in some cases, even fueled some of the protests that have erupted in recent days. At the same time, officials have been careful to keep control over the masses, leery that gatherings of malcontents could easily turn against their own government.
China analysts say that the two-pronged approach is carefully calibrated to increase pressure on Japan, but that it is also driven by domestic politics, as officials jockey for position ahead of the fast approaching, once-in-a-decade leadership transition.
“The party is skilled at manipulating such public opinion . . . and the signs that these demonstrations were organized by the government is very high,” said Liu Junning, a former researcher at a government-related think tank and now an independent political analyst. “The protests come when the leaders need one to come, and the protests will stop when they want them to stop.”
On Monday, Chinese officials sent signals that they were looking to taper the protests over the islands — called Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China — especially in the face of the potential economic impact on China-Japan trade.
Some Japanese companies temporarily shut down their factories in China on Monday; there were reports of work stoppages for brand names such as Nissan, Mazda and Canon.
Air tickets from China to Japan have reportedly been canceled en masse. Many Japanese-brand stores closed and posted Chinese flags on their doors to ward off vandals and posters swearing their love for and allegiance to China.
The precautions followed violent action by protesters over the weekend. Eggs and bottles were thrown at the Japanese Embassy in Beijing, businesses’ windows were smashed and Japanese cars were bashed on streets across China. In southern parts of the country, protesters clashed with riot police.
Editorials by most major state-run media in China on Monday called for restraint, “sensible patriotism” and “levelheadedness.” Authorities also significantly bulked up the police presence in Beijing and threatened arrest of “unlawful” protesters in certain regions in preparation for Tuesday’s anniversary of the invasion of China by the Japanese in the 1930s.
The anger is rooted in bitterness that has lingered in China for decades. Chinese leaders are using those feelings in part for reasons that have little to do with Japan, experts say.
Even as early as Sept. 11, as small groups began demonstrating in front of the Japanese Embassy, there were signs of government encouragement. Mistaken for protesters, two journalists passing by were met by plainclothes police officers and instructed where to go to more effectively protest.
Interviews with protesters were also monitored by plainclothes police, who allowed some to express their anger at Japan but swiftly intervened in several cases when questions turned personal. They asked how the protesters had heard of the demonstration and where they worked.
In past cases, such as anti-U.S. protests, local officials have been known to organize students and others, busing them in to increase numbers and even providing flags for them to wave.
Chinese journalists say that in recent days they have been given instructions by propaganda officials to report on the nationalistic, patriotic nature of the demonstrations but not to emphasize any violence. Many blog posts criticizing the protests and violence were wiped off China’s microblogs.
One post that quickly went viral compared a protest leader in Xian to the ID photo of a local police official as proof the police were organizing some aspects of the protests — an allegation local police denied.
But the biggest proof of government encouragement of the protests is that they happened at all.
Communist Party officials, anxious about retaining their grip on power, allow virtually no protests critical of their government. Demonstrations are banned without legal registration.
But there are competing theories about who within the government is encouraging recent anti-Japan protests and why.
Some analysts contend that rival factions, such as the Security Ministry or the military, are using them to gain political power ahead of the leadership change in coming weeks that will appoint China’s top leaders for the next decade.
Others point to specific banners and well-organized groups of protesters in outdated Maoist garb in certain areas as proof that supporters of recently fallen leader Bo Xilai are using the anti-Japanese demonstrations as an excuse to push their leftist ideology and rally support for Bo.
Most experts think the party is using the demonstrations to release builtup pressure and frustration among citizens and to redirect their attention to foreign issues rather than dwelling on mounting internal problems.
“Foreign threats are certainly a useful diversion during a period when people would otherwise be paying attention to the domestic issues and leadership,” said Susan Shirk, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Asia.
“This is also happening at a moment of succession, when everyone is competing with everyone else for a seat in the system. You can’t go wrong by talking tough on Japan.”
China probing U.S. ambassador’s car incident
BEIJING – China said Wednesday it was investigating an incident where about 50 protesters surrounded the car of the U.S. ambassador, tried to block him from entering the embassy compound and ripped the car’s flag.
Above is video posted to YouTube by Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, showing protesters surrounding and throwing water bottles at U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke’s car on September 18, 2012, in Beijing.
Chinese police cleared roadblocks and some Japanese businesses reopened after days of large, sometimes violent protests in many cities over Japan’s recent purchase of islands also claimed by Beijing.
In Beijing, the bitterness spilled over from the Japanese Embassy to the nearby U.S. Embassy. Video posted on YouTube showed a small number of protesters throwing small objects at U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke’s car on Tuesday before Chinese security forces moved in to break up the crowd.
Locke told reporters Wednesday that Chinese authorities were “very quick” to move the demonstrators away. “It was all over in a matter of minutes, and I never felt in any danger,” he said.
The U.S., a close ally of Japan, has said it is staying out of the dispute over the islands.
The incident came amid heightened vigilance for American diplomats following violent attacks on U.S. embassies in Libya, Yemen and Egypt. The embassy in Beijing said it has asked China’s government to do everything possible to protect American facilities and personnel.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. has registered its concern with China both in Washington and Beijing, and Chinese authorities have expressed regret over the incident.
Nuland said the preliminary U.S. assessment was that the car was “a target of opportunity” for protesters who had gathered outside the nearby Japanese Embassy.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a regular news briefing Wednesday that the incident was “an individual case,” but that China was investigating it.
The protests over the weekend were triggered by the Japanese government’s decision last week to purchase some disputed East China Sea islands from their private Japanese owners. More demonstrations followed Tuesday, the 81st anniversary of Japan’s invasion of China, an emotional remembrance that stoked the outrage.
Though the anti-Japan demonstrations have wound down, at least temporarily, there has been no progress in resolving the territorial dispute bedeviling relations between the two Asian economic powerhouses.
The rhetoric on both sides has remained uncompromising.
China’s future leader, Xi Jinping, told visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Wednesday that Japan’s purchase of the islands was a farce, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.
“Japan should rein in its behavior and stop any words and acts that undermine China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Xinhua quoted Xi as saying.
In Tokyo, former Japanese Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba said losing a piece of Japan would mean “losing the whole country.”
The islands – called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China – are tiny rock outcroppings that have been a sore point between China and Japan for decades. Japan has claimed the islands since 1895. The U.S. took jurisdiction after World War II and turned them over to Japan in 1972.
Japan’s government sees its purchase of some of the islands as a way to thwart a potentially more inflammatory move by the governor of Tokyo, who had wanted not only to buy the islands but also develop them. But Beijing sees Japan’s purchase as an affront to its claims and its past calls for negotiations.
Beijing has sent patrol ships inside Japanese-claimed waters around the islands, and some state media have urged Chinese to show their patriotism by boycotting Japanese goods and canceling travel to Japan.
The islands are important mainly because of their location near key sea lanes in the East China Sea. They are surrounded by rich fishing grounds and as-yet untapped underwater natural resources.
Chinese state media have also reported that boats were headed to the waters around the disputed islands for seasonal fishing.
Hong, the foreign ministry spokesman, said such activities were within China’s rights.
“The Diaoyu Islands have belonged to China since ancient times,” he said. “It is totally legitimate and reasonable for Chinese fishing vessels to fish in relevant waters.”