Beijing’s Dangerous Game

Shenzhen protesters.jpg

Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images

Anti-Japanese protesters in Shenzhen, China are confronted by police as they demonstrate over the disputed Diaoyu Islands, September 16, 2012

Over the past few days, angry crowds in more than thirty Chinese cities have trashed Japanese stores, overturned Japanese cars, shouted “Down with Japan,” and carried banners that demand Chinese sovereignty over the uninhabited Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. Japan also claims ownership of these islands, which it calls the Senkakyus. Chinese protests have reached some peculiar extents. A Chinese clothing store called Pattad offers a 15 percent discount to anyone who enters and yells, “The Diaoyu Islands belong to China!” (You get 20 percent off if you yell “Japan belongs to China!”) A boy interviewed on the street says, “When I grow up I want to build tanks to annihilate Japan.”

Many have ascribed the vehemence of the protests to deep-rooted anti-Japanese sentiment linked to injustices committed by Japan eighty years ago. But there is little evidence to support this. Rather the protests appear to have everything to do with the interests of China’s current rulers, at a moment when the top leadership in Beijing is in turmoil.

The Chinese state media suggest that Chinese people have long memories of Japan’s invasion of China in 1931, when the Japanese army carried out a brutal massacre of civilians in the capital city of Nanjing in 1937. According to them, what we see today are echoes of this longstanding “national insult.” But there are not many people in China today who personally remember the 1930s. Recollections of these distant events handed down within families are not that strong, and moreover must compete with some terrible memories of the intervening Mao era. The anti-Japan expression that we see on the streets today springs largely from other sources.

In the 1950s, when Japanese war atrocities were still fresh in Chinese minds, Mao Zedong’s government sealed the topic from public discussion. Newspapers, schools, and museums made no mention of it. “Resist America, Aid Korea,” “Oppose Rightism,” and a “Great Leap Forward” were some of the pre-occupations of the day. Historians have surmised that one reason Mao may have wanted to keep the Nanjing massacre in the shadows is that Nanjing had been the capital of Chiang Kai Shek’s KMT, and he didn’t want to draw sympathy to his adversaries, who after all were still active in Taiwan. In any case Mao never once visited Nanjing to console its victims. In 1961, he commented to Kuroda Hisao, a visiting Japanese politician, that he really should “thank the Japanese militarists” because their incursions into China “created conditions” for his victory over the KMT. These words of course severely undermine the public image of Mao as a selfless revolutionary, so much so that one might suspect there to have been a mistake, perhaps a mis-transcription or at least a Romney-esque “poor choice of words.” But no; Mao repeated the message at least twice during the next three years—once to Japanese businessmen and once to leaders of the New Zealand Communist Party. For the actual Mao, personal power was always the top priority. Today’s protestors, who hold up color posters of Mao as their anti-Japan champion, are unaware of his history.

In 1985, nine years after Mao’s death, a Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall opened in Nanjing. China’s textbooks and media also began to mention the massacre, and the government began to use the issue as a way to stimulate nationalism and draw support to itself. The anti-Japan vitriol that we see in the streets today comes much more from that “education” since the 1980s than it does from memories of the 1930s. In 1998 Jiang Zemin, China’s president, visited Japan and demanded a written apology for Japan’s invasion of China. Public demonstrations against Japan have flared occasionally since then, often after government prodding but always under government monitoring and control.

There is every sign that the outbursts of recent days are of this kind. Events in two dozen cities have unfolded with near simultaneity, and there are plenty of mass-produced banners and Mao-portraits in view, suggesting that those who took part had ready access to official help. Bloggers in China have posted accounts, with accompanying photos, of what they say are plainclothes police instigating and leading the protest activity. (In one photo a man appears to have a policeman’s bullet-proof vest under his commoner’s T-shirt.) Han Han, one of the country’s most widely-read bloggers, has written that the looting and trashing “must be punished by law, or I might suspect that it has official backing.” Chinese students in California have been urged by the San Francisco Chinese consulate to display their “patriotism” in local demonstrations.

It is significant that the numbers of protesters, by Chinese standards, are small. Crowds are in the hundreds, rarely over a thousand. By contrast the crowd at the pro-democracy demonstrations at Tiananmen in 1989 reached a million at its peak. There is no doubt which cause had the deeper appeal. Today, too, measured in numbers, the complaints of Chinese protesters are overwhelmingly not about uninhabited islands but about things closer to home—corruption, pollution, land annexation, special privilege, and abuse of power—and the usual adversaries today are not Japan but Chinese officials and the wealthy people associated with them. The Chinese police handle, on average, two hundred or more “mass incidents”—meaning demonstrations, riots, road-blockages, and the like—every day. This kind of protest is perennial but not well reported. The anti-Japan protests are highly unusual but assiduously reported.


From the regime’s point of view, the reporting is the whole point. The purpose of instigating protests is to generate “mass opinion” to serve a political purpose. Let me offer an especially clear example from a different context. In March, 2008, in Lhasa, Tibet, young Tibetans went on a rampage against Chinese shop owners. Some people say that agents provocateurs were at work, some say not. But in either case, credible eyewitnesses on both sides reported that for several hours Chinese police stood by and did nothing. They watched the looting and burning of stores while reporters from state-owned media made video recordings. Only when the taping was over did the police step in, arresting hundreds. Then, during the ensuing seventy-two hours, Chinese television—nationwide—showed and re-showed the video footage, explaining that the Dalai Lama, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, had been the instigator of the mayhem. Twenty days later, when young Tibetans ventured onto the streets of Lhasa and seemed ready to protest again, the police quelled them instantly. This time there was no need for videotapes.

What is it, today, that the people at the top in China want to achieve by stimulating and advertising anti-Japan sentiment? They do not say, of course, so the world must guess, but in broad outline the guessing isn’t very hard. The people at the top, who are used to maintaining a smooth façade, have every reason right now to distract attention from the unexpectedly messy handover of power now taking place, the results of which are hugely important to them. Not only power but tremendous amounts of wealth are at stake. The outcome of the power struggle in Beijing could affect the whole nation, but the people at the top prefer that the whole nation be gazing in a different direction. The trial of Wang Lijun—the police chief of disgraced senior politician Bo Xilai who was closely involved in the Neil Heywood murder affair—has been unfolding this week concurrently with the anti-Japan flare-ups. It should and would be a sensation but isn’t: if it were probed and reported properly, the case would reveal a great deal about corruption, special privilege, abuse of power, wealth inequality, and all those other issues that Chinese people often notice and protest about. The mysterious recent disappearance from public view of Xi Jinping, who is expected to replace Hu Jintao in the top post in government at the Chinese Communist Party’s Eighteenth National Congress this fall, also raises large questions to which a citizen would want answers. How might one divert attention from these questions toward the fate of some barren islands? Nationalism! Hate Japan!

Beyond simply providing a distraction, is it possible that the anti-Japan protests have been fanned by one or another top leader in order to get leverage against rivals? There has been much speculation of this kind on the Chinese Internet. Is Xi Jinping trying to “strike hard” to make others sit up and listen? Are Bo Xilai’s people trying clear the brush for a Bo comeback? Is recently-retired Politburo powerbroker Zeng Qinghong still jousting with his old adversary Hu Jintao? The Chinese leadership is a black box, and it is hard either to embrace or to reject any of these speculations. But it is certainly possible that internecine combat is in play.

Whoever is stimulating the riots runs the risk, of course, that they could quickly get out of hand. When students in the famous May Fourth Movement of 1919 protested against the hand-over of Shandong to Japan after World War I, they focused their anger on China’s government, not Japan’s. Worse, what if the anti-Japan theme were to bleed into that large repertoire of everyday grievances that are directed at Chinese officials themselves? Hao Jian, a professor at the Beijing Film Academy, has written an essay about the split psychology of Chinese protesters. People know which questions they are allowed to express anger about, and which not, and behave accordingly. But their minds, inside, harbor plenty of anger, and if the partition walls were ever to fall, much would spill out.


The men at the top are very adept at staying there, and doubtlessly are aware of the dangers of this game. To them, stirring up and giving media attention to anti-Japan sentiment is a way to further their psychological engineering of the Chinese public. They know that it carries a risk. But the potential damage to the regime that could come from letting the public concentrate on their power transition, or get a deeper look into how corruption and special privilege work, is even greater. On balance, they may well conclude: Let’s do it! Protect those barren islands!

Subscribe or give a gift, The New York Review of Books

Give the gift they’ll open all year.

Save 55% off the regular rate and over 75% off the cover price and receive a free 2024 calendar!