Observations of a Protest

The following dispatch was sent to CDT by an American who was visiting Shanghai during the recent anti-Japan protests:

Shanghai, September 18, 2012 – by Jane Wang
On 9-18 (九一八), the anniversary of the Mukden Incident, I had arranged to meet with a friend for morning coffee at a café on Donghu Road. We learned that morning that there were going to be three Anti-Japanese marches, and that they were going to follow the same parade routes as the 2005 Anti-Japanese marches. One of those routes went up Donghu Road. This street, in the old French Concession, is lined with Japanese restaurants. A couple of them had Chinese flags taped to their windows, but the rest didn’t seem to have bothered. The largest restaurant, a teppan yaki place with yards and yards of plate glass windows fronting the street, had no flags or signs at all.

The marches were supposed to begin at 10 am. As the hour approached, we saw a handful of protesters hurrying towards Huaihai Road, where the march was supposed to originate. All were young and some carried banners with anti-Japanese slogans. My friend also spotted a reporter for a major American daily heading the same direction.

Time passed, but no marchers appeared. By 11 am, we were finished with our coffee and were ready to leave.

That night, Phoenix Television aired coverage of some of the demonstrations around China, and I watched with a Chinese friend. A protester in Shanghai was interviewed. “He’s not from around here,” my friend said. “He has an accent.” Next, protesters in Shenyang were interviewed. The first one had a southern accent. “Nanfang ren,” (“Southerner”) we said in unison.

My friend was cynical about the protests—a sideshow designed to distract people from more important things, like the trial of Wang Lijun, which concluded on 9-18, or the power struggles in Beijing, or the other issues that are on people’s minds, like corruption and the environment.

Nobody I’ve spoken to takes the protests seriously. Granted, most of the people I speak to are well-educated and have some international experience. Reactions range from dismissive (“just a bunch of silly kids”) to contemptuous (“they’re paid and they’re bused in from elsewhere”).

A couple of my friends witnessed marches: on Yan’an Road and at People’s Square. The latter was clearly organized, and there was a heavy police presence, with plainclothes policemen easily recognizable.

Although I heard reports that major Japanese companies have been closed, everywhere I’ve gone over the past few days, I’ve seen Japanese restaurants doing a good business. They’re not packed, but few places in the neighborhoods I frequent are. Customers are Chinese and foreign. Sanrio stores and other stores around the center of town are not being boycotted, either. One chain of Japanese restaurants has a large branch on the pedestrian portion of East Nanjing Road. It was business as usual. The lights were blazing on Wednesday night, and crowds moved past the open doors as they would on any night.

The government-backed protests seem like such a cynical use of history. I think back to the May 4th movement, which also had a heavily anti-Japanese component, and its depiction in popular culture—a film like “Shop of the Lin Family” comes to mind. This is like a replay of May 4th, only it’s repeating itself as farce. Today, young people are taking to the streets as if they’re out on a Sunday stroll, except that they’re holding banners that are filled with profane and violent threats. It’s political theater, but the people involved carry on as if national survival were once again at stake. The Diaoyu Islands/Senkakus aren’t really the issue. But the Japanese government’s official lack of contrition about (and sometimes outright denial of) the events of the Second World War is. And this is an old wound that the Chinese government is happy to reopen whenever there are political or social problems that threaten to undermine social “harmony”.

Despite the fact that a significant number of people don’t seem to be buying into the anti-Japan fervor, I would not want to be a Japanese person in China right now. But I wouldn’t want to be a member of the Chinese government either. As one friend observed, what the government is doing is very dangerous: the protesters are angry, and angry people are unpredictable. If the government loses control of the protesters, chaos could ensure; and it’s entirely possible that the protesters could turn their rage towards the government itself.

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