By Michelle Mengsu Chang, BASC Research Assistant
As the diplomatic crisis between China and Japan over disputed territories in the East China Sea drags on, thousands have mobilized in both countries to protest what each side calls the violation of their country’s sovereignty by the other side. Particularly in China, protesters took to the streets in every major city and in cities like Chengdu attracted more than 10,000 participants. While all reports of the protests in China make note of angry youths boycotting Japanese products and in some cases of Japanese properties being demolished by protestors, what attitude the Chinese government has taken towards the protests has been obscured by conflicting pieces of evidence.
On the one hand, the government has been very careful not to let public anger get out of control. Particularly in Beijing, demonstrators outside the Japanese Embassy were tightly managed by the police and were often outnumbered by police forces. Moreover, notices, comments, photos, and videos of anti-Japan protests were quickly taken down from the Internet in China. An article in TIME Magazine speculates that the Chinese state is fearful because anti-Japan protests in China have a history of turning against the Chinese government after a while, drawing a parallel between the current crisis and the 1919 “May 4th Movement” that started as a reaction against the Treaty of Versailles but in the end sealed the demise of Imperial China.
On the other hand, however, there are reasons to believe that the Chinese government has also indulged the protests to some degree. According to an article in the Washington Post, the government publicly described the protests as “understandable.” Moreover, it seems rather unlikely that a state capable of silencing both the Tibetan and the Uighur independence movements would have been incapable of stopping the mob gatherings that reduced to waste so many Japanese shop windows, showcases, and even Toyotas on the streets. What attitude the Chinese government takes towards the protests, therefore, is an interesting question to think about. As domestic tensions over various social issues have built up over the years, a foreign enemy seems to be an easy outlet for public anger. But keeping that anger under control is difficult business.