The Dangerous Game of Protesting in China

Some observers of the recent anti-Japan protests have questioned the government's role in facilitating the demonstrations. Skeptics are pointing out that nationalistic protests provide the perfect distraction for the public from the upcoming leadership transition, the scandal surrounding Bo Xilai, and a host of other domestic sources of discontent. For the New York Review of Books, Perry Link looks at the political manipulation of the protests and compares them to the May 4th demonstrations (as did our correspondent, Jane Wang, who recently sent in her observations of the protests in Shanghai):

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!


A report in the Economist echoes Link's concern that the protests risk going off-script to focus on discontent closer to home, and quotes a recent study which found that, indeed, “nationalism serves as a powerful instrument in impeding public demand for democratic change.”

For Foreign Policy, Shanghai writer Qi Ge writes about his experience growing up with anti-Japan propaganda and how the recent protests serve to distract young Chinese from the real problems of their lives:

So, Chinese young people today ought to thank the Japanese government, for if it hadn't purchased the Diaoyu Islands, the Chinese government wouldn't have opened the net a little, allowing them to take to the streets last week. The demonstrators chanted monotonous and boring slogans, like telling the Japanese to get the hell out of the Diaoyu Islands; plainclothes cops intermingled with the marchers, keeping in nervous contact through their earpieces. Protesters even carried images of Mao, who died in 1976, though I wish he had died much earlier.

Many of the young marchers were terribly excited. For decades, TV shows about the Anti-Japanese War of 1931-1945 had distorted historical facts and turned the Japanese into a stupid, aggressive, cruel race of cockroaches that needed to be exterminated. Amusingly, the Chinese actors portraying those Japanese devils only spoke Chinese, bowing and scraping shamelessly, their every move no different from those of corrupt officials throughout China today.

Now, the Chinese government feels that it's not enough to smear the enemy through television alone, and the time has come to allow young people to demonstrate, a chance young people welcome because through their patriotic actions they can prove their worth in this world. Many of them are ordinarily very humble, drawing a low salary and struggling in expensive cities. They can't afford to buy homes, have a family, raise children, or take care of their parents, and no one pays any attention to them. But now, these trampled marionettes have finally made the leap to the center of the political stage, so they willingly allow their strings to be pulled.


An Al Jazeera Stream episode focused on the social media reaction to the protests and asks whether the protests really reflect common concerns of the majority of Chinese people:



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