Chinese protest over disputed islands
DEMONSTRATORS TOOK to the streets in dozens of Chinese cities over the weekend in violent anti-Japanese protests, laying siege to the Japanese embassy and attacking Japanese cars, businesses and restaurants as tensions between the two Asian giants simmered over a disputed island chain.
In Beijing, a police helicopter circled – something seldom seen in the capital – as demonstrators threw rocks and eggs at the Japanese embassy, which was cordoned off by police.
The demonstrations are well organised, and while the government has not formally backed the protests, and has urged protesters not to resort to violence, there is a sense of tacit official approval of the rallies, given that large-scale protests are normally not tolerated in China.
“The expression of patriotic feelings should not come at the cost of disrupting domestic social order,” the Xinhua news agency wrote in a commentary yesterday, trying to tone down the anti-Japanese feeling state-owned media spent much of last week whipping up.
Relations between China and Japan have long been edgy but Tokyo’s decision to buy the uninhabited islands from a Japanese family has brought anger to the boil in China, prompting Japanese prime minister Yoshihiko Noda to call for measures to protect Japanese nationals in China.
“Regrettably, this is a problem concerning the safety of Japanese nationals and Japan-affiliated companies,” he said. “I would like to urge the Chinese government to protect their safety.”
The islands are surrounded by rich fishing grounds and have strategic importance but behind much of the anger lies a sense of China exercising growing regional clout in the face of what it sees as Japanese nationalism and aggression.
The language on their banners was extremely inflammatory, calling for the “nuclear extermination of wild Japanese dogs”. “Never forget the century of humiliation” said one, a reference to the period during which China was occupied by overseas powers that included Japan.
China has sent surveillance ships to the disputed Diaoyu islands, or the Senkakus, as the Japanese call them, and the crews have exchanged warnings with Japanese coast guard ships.
The demonstrations were most intense in the southern city of Shenzhen, across the border from Hong Kong. Photographs showed police firing tear gas and using water cannon and pepper spray to repel thousands of protesters.
In Shanghai, home to China’s biggest Japanese population, hundreds marched on the Japanese consulate. A group of about 2,000 protesters reportedly tried to demonstrate at the US consulate in the southwestern city of Chengdu to make the US “heed their voices”.
Demonstrators also attacked factories belonging to the electronics company Panasonic in the eastern cities of Qingdao and Suzhou. In Changsha and in other cities protesters burned Mitsubishi police cars.
In Beijing many demonstrators held portraits of the late revolutionary leader Mao Zedong and donned Mao-era green uniforms in what was read as a criticism of the current leadership. Many newspapers and television stations, which are controlled by the ruling Communist Party, have urged a boycott of Japanese goods.
China believes the islands were illegally invaded and occupied by the Japanese during the second World War, and were returned to China when Japan was defeated.
There are regular outbursts of anti-Japanese sentiment in China but this is the worst since 2005, when riots took place over a history book the Chinese felt downplayed Japanese atrocities in China during the war.
Nationalists in China feel Japan has failed to atone properly for what happened during the occupation of China.
Diplomats in Beijing say neither side wants the situation to escalate, but a combination of elements might make it difficult to keep things calm.
Japan has elections coming up, and China is facing into a tense change of leadership, making problematic the finding of a solution that plays well to their respective domestic audiences.
In addition, tomorrow is the anniversary of the Mukden incident in 1931, when Japan seized Manchuria in northeast China, triggering 14 years of occupation by China. The anniversary is likely to trigger major protests.
The Chinese have also said the issue will damage trade relations between the two Asian giants. Carmaker Nissan has said the spat has affected orders in China. China is Japan’s largest trading partner. In 2011, the countries’ bilateral trade grew 14.3 per cent to €263 billion.
In a tragic twist, the newly appointed Japanese ambassador to Beijing, Shinichi Nishimiya, died yesterday, three days after collapsing near his home in Tokyo. He had been appointed ambassador last Tuesday, and was due to take up his new post next month.