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 ...
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