Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Black hand of Beijing

Some See Beijing's Hand in Anti-Japan Protests

AOL News

TAIPEI, Taiwan (Oct. 19) --
Three days of rowdy and occasionally violent anti-Japan demonstrations in Chinese cities have left observers puzzling over whether the generally hyper-vigilant Chinese government was behind them.

For some observers, the answer is "yes" -- at the least to the extent that government censors allowed protests to be organized online.

China's normally heavy-handed Internet and mobile-phone controls seek to suppress exactly the type of large-scale demonstrations that took place over the weekend and into Monday in at least five cities in China. Usually, such controls are fairly effective.

But when the target of protesters' wrath is Japan, the picture becomes muddier. The Chinese government is believed to condone some anti-Japan activity as a way of letting off nationalist steam, sending a signal of its displeasure to Tokyo or -- if you're of a more cynical mind -- distracting Chinese citizens from their own government's shortcomings.

"This [the protests] is definitely no coincidence. It's a typical example of diverting attention," rights activist Pu Fei told Hong Kong's Apple Daily. "It's to shift the public and netizens' focus away from [Noble Peace Prize winner] Liu Xiaobo and [his wife] Liu Xia."

Still, the Chinese Communist Party government considers social stability a paramount concern and is fearful of letting large-scale protests spin out of control.

The latest round of anti-Japan protests began Saturday, ostensibly as tit-for-tat counter-demonstrations to anti-China protests in Tokyo, where right-wing Japanese surrounded Beijing's embassy. Japanese police prevented the protesters from coming too close to the embassy, according to Taiwan media reports.

Protesters on both sides are angry over tiny islets, called the Senkaku in Japanese and the Diaoyu in Chinese, that Japan controls but both countries claim. Nationalists in both countries insist the rocky islets in the East China Sea are part of their country's territory; tensions flared last month when the Japanese coast guard detained a Chinese fishing boat captain near the islets.

In the latest protests, analysts differ on how active a role Beijing played.

"It is not at all clear that these demonstrations are orchestrated by the central government," said Russell Leigh Moses, a Beijing-based professor of Chinese politics, in an e-mail. "Indeed, it is far more likely that these protests are driven by local organizers with experience and skills and who think that anti-Japanese sentiment is looked upon favorably by certain officials in Beijing."

A favorable -- if guarded -- view of the protests came from Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu, who expressed sympathy with the demonstrators while urging them to follow the law.

"It is understandable that some people expressed their outrage against the recent erroneous words and deeds on the Japanese side," said Ma after Saturday's protests, according to Agence France-Presse. "We maintain that patriotism should be expressed rationally and in line with law. We don't agree with irrational actions that violate laws and regulations."

Others say the government clearly "allowed" the protests to be organized and go forward, and could have easily put a stop to them had it wished.

"If the government very consciously opposed or didn't want these demonstrations, if they resolutely didn't want them, then there would be nothing," Renmin University professor of international relations Shi Yinhong told The Associated Press.

On Saturday in China, protests erupted in the western Sichuan province capital of Chengdu, as well as Xian. One English-language blogger took photos and video of the Chengdu protests, showing hundreds of young Chinese thronging the streets, calling for a boycott of Japanese products, burning paper arranged in the Chinese characters for "Japan" and scuffling with riot police.

There were also reports that a woman was forced to strip by an angry mob who mistook her dress for a Japanese-style kimono.

Asked by the blogger why he showed up, one protester cited the Diaoyu islands and said, "China's territory cannot be separated." Asked how he'd heard about the demonstrations, the protester said "tieba" -- referring to Internet message boards.

Such bulletin boards, like the popular Baidu Tieba, are strictly monitored by government censors, who delete inappropriate content, including attempts at unsanctioned political organization. Baidu Tieba deletes 1 million posts every day, mostly spam, according to a company official quoted in a Chinese report.

Protests continued Sunday in Mianyang, also in Sichuan province, then spread to Wuhan in central Hubei province and Lanzhou city in Gansu province on Monday, according to Hong Kong and Taiwan media.

Students carried signs saying "Kill 'little Japan'" ("little Japan" is a favorite term of reference for Chinese nationalists) and "China's most important task is to wipe out Japan"; overturned Japanese-brand cars; and smashed windows at Japanese stores.

At least seven Chinese students as well as a Hong Kong TV crew were arrested and taken away in Wuhan, according to Taiwan's Apple Daily. Police put students on tour buses and returned them to their campuses.

Mainland Chinese media have blacked out the protests, with no mention in either English- or Chinese-language news sites.

The last round of anti-Japan protests, at the height of the fishing boat dispute in mid-September, were quickly quashed by police. Then, Internet postings attempting to organize protests were rapidly deleted.

At that time, according to Japan's Asahi Shimbun, Han Han, one of China's top bloggers, complained that anti-Japan protests were a "game engineered by the [Chinese] government." His post was itself quickly zapped by censors, the Asahi said.

More anti-Japan protests are planned for Saturday in Sichuan province's Deyang City, and three protests are planned in Chongqing next week, according to Japanese media cited by the Apple Daily.

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