Chinese protest against Japan is small but heated

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Dozens of Chinese demonstrators rallied outside the Japanese Embassy then marched through rain-slicked streets to the Foreign Ministry on Saturday, belting out the national anthem and hollering nationalistic slogans against “foreigners” and the Japanese to protest the detention of a Chinese fishing crew.

A demonstration of any kind is rare in this tightly controlled nation, and Saturday’s protest was a deliberately understated affair. The marchers were carefully monitored by rings of police, who moved through the protest with an almost methodical choreography.

But riskier drama unfolded on the edges of the main event, and in the days leading up to Saturday’s protest, as China’s unruly “netizens” threatened to infiltrate the demonstration for their own purposes, the government raced in the final days to downplay plans for protest.

The struggle, much of which unfolded on the Internet before Saturday had dawned, gave a keen illustration of the razor’s edge walked by the Chinese government as it basks in renewed nationalism while keeping a tight grip on any expressions of political discontent.

Earlier this month, a Chinese fishing boat collided with a Japanese coast guard vessel off disputed islands claimed by both countries, and the Chinese crew was detained by Japan. To the outrage of the Chinese government and public, the captain is still being held.

In the days since, anti-Japan sentiment has been boiling in China’s state media.

The incident has badly soured relations between the two countries, spilling over into trade and diplomatic ties and dredging up lingering tensions over the status of the disputed islands -- an issue that tends to stir nationalistic sentiments in many Chinese.

Saturday’s anniversary of the “Mukden incident” (known to Japanese as the “Manchurian incident”) promised to further inflame tensions. Every year, the commemorations of the start of Japan’s invasion of China stir bitter memories of Japanese occupation.

All week, the Internet buzzed with clashing reports of a planned demonstration Saturday.

The police were evasive. A Foreign Ministry spokeswoman would tell reporters only that “Chinese citizens will express their feelings through legal and rational means.”

Meanwhile, on Twitter, artist and famous Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei pledged to take part in the demonstrations. “For sure,” he wrote. “Any protest, I’ll take part in.” Other government critics chimed in.

Signs of official nervousness grew. Internet censors turned their attention to the protest. Message boards that wrote about the demonstrations were scrubbed or taken offline altogether. The organization that has been most outspoken in promoting China’s claims to the islands had its website removed.

By Friday afternoon, even Google searches for the Chinese name of the disputed islands, Diaoyu Islands, had been blocked in both English and Chinese.

When the protest finally began, few government critics were in evidence. A trio of young men marched in matching red T-shirts printed with the face of Mao Zedong, leading chants of “let’s unite against the foreigners” and “crush the Japanese.”

“The government is not strong enough,” griped Zhang Chao, a 39-year-old adman. “The Chinese people have stood up and demonstrated, now the government should be strong, as well and use our cannons and guns.”

One of the few whispers of dissent came from a lone, slight man in a tan windbreaker who carried a sign reading “the government of Shen Zhen is corrupt.”

Luo Huanqiu didn’t care much about the dispute with Japan. He’s been pressing officials to better investigate the murder of his sister, he explained, and a planned protest seemed a handy time to raise his voice.

“I’m always looking for ways to air my grievance,” said Luo. “Today there are a lot of people. If you’re just one person, you get arrested. It’s safer in a big crowd.”

The demonstrators were not allowed to linger long outside the Japanese Embassy. Instead, guided at times by police, the crowd wended its way through the streets until it reached the Foreign Ministry.

Then the protesters stood across the street and shouted a few more slogans, pumping their fists all the while. “Chinese government, stand up!” “Crush the traitors!”

And then it was over. The demonstrators wandered off into the rain, disappearing into a sea of umbrella-hidden passersby on the crowded street.