By permitting anti-Japanese protests in Beijing in recent weeks, China's leaders are playing a very risky and disturbing game, the dangers of which are now apparent.
Beijing risks major challenges to both its foreign policy and domestic stability. Having selectively tolerated these angry nationalist protestors, it must now figure out how to “climb off the tiger's back.”
Beijing did not initiate and denies tacitly encouraging the recent demonstrations. But when longtime anti-Japanese activists applied to protest under China's restrictive Public Demonstrations Law, the leadership under President Hu Jintao decided that instead of standing in the way of this nationalist wave, its best option was to allow the protests while trying to “stage manage” them.
China's leaders may even be congratulating themselves that, by getting out in front of the protests, they scored some points vis-à-vis Tokyo by spotlighting what is certainly sincere popular anger at two things: the prospect of granting Japan a permanent seat in the U.N. Security Council, and the latest efforts by some Japanese textbook writers to whitewash World War II atrocities.
But in contrast to anti-U.S. protests that followed the 1999 Belgrade bombing, Chinese resentment toward Japan has a much longer history and is better organized than anti-American feeling. By permitting the recent demonstrations, Beijing has tacitly legitimized a shadowy network of anti-Japanese groups that exist in the gray area of China's emerging “civil society.” Although many of these groups are attached to official institutions — such as “World War II victims research institutes” — the Chinese government cannot be completely sure how tightly its controls these groups. China is sure to face similar requests to protest again and again. Quite predictably, these groups followed up their April 11 demonstrations outside the Japanese embassy by calling for more protests in Beijing and several more cities the following weekend. Beijing Public Security officials tried unsuccessfully to negotiate limitations on protests with group leaders, and finally issued a notice that lauded the demonstrators' impatience with Japan, but reminded them that “unauthorized” protest is illegal.
In fact, there is good reason to believe these nationalists' support for their own government is highly contingent, and could instantly transform into anger if Beijing misplays its hand in this dangerous game. Security officials have previously detained one prominent activist, Tong Zeng, for fear he would launch unapproved protests during state visits by Japanese officials. Having now given Tong's followers the green light, can Beijing be sure how they will respond to a red light in the future?
China simply does not have the same tight control over public protest that it had a decade ago. Official police statistics indicate mass protests have risen from 8,700 in 1993 to more than 58,000 in 2003 — more than 560 percent in a decade. The new official police strategy is not to try to deter or quickly quash all unrest, but to contain and defuse it, and avoid turning peaceful protests into bloody riots through ham-fisted police tactics.
But the anti-Japanese protests demonstrated the limitations of this approach in the face of nationalist violence. In some ways, Chinese Public Security officials did an impressive job of containing the protests — requiring protestors to get police permission, telling some prominent anti-Japanese activists to stay home, and preventing demonstrations in Beijing on the third weekend. Police recycled tactics they had used after the Belgrade bombing — carefully restricting the route, limiting how long protestors could stay in front of Japan's embassy, and providing buses to take them home.
But despite China's claims to Japanese officials the protests would be handled “according to law,” police did not dare risk enraging the nationalist protestors. Police held their lines in front of the embassy, but reportedly did little to stop demonstrators who broke Chinese law by overturning cars, breaking windows at Japanese businesses, and hurling rocks and bricks into the embassy compound.
If future crowds outside Japan's embassy turn uglier — throwing Molotov cocktails as some did at the U.S. Embassy in 1999 — will police have the courage to step forward and stop these excesses? Or will the police continue to just grasp their shields and hope the protestors don't turn on them? Or worse, will some police even find various ways of joining in or helping the protestors?
The city of Beijing, moreover, boasts China's largest, best trained anti-riot forces, but the violence in Shanghai and other cities shows it is not certain that police in other cities will show equal professionalism.
If Beijing finds it must use force to rein in protestors, anti-Japanese nationalists will surely denounce the police as “brutal protectors of the unrepentant Japanese.” This could be a disaster for a post-Marxist government that has staked its claims to legitimacy on nationalism.
In these protests, China has at least two nightmare scenarios: One is that demonstrators violently attack Japanese legations and diplomats. But Beijing's greater nightmare is seeing the Chinese Internet awash with photos of an angry young anti-Japanese protestor, her head bloodied from beatings by Chinese police.
On May 4, China celebrated the 86th anniversary of the signal event in modern Chinese nationalism — a massive student protest against Chinese government officials who accepted territorial concessions to Japan in 1919 after World War I. It is difficult to imagine a riskier time for Beijing to selectively tolerate these demonstrations when it suppresses so many others, and try to play the game of foreign policy by mass protest.
“Outside View” © 2005 United Press International
Murray Scot Tanner is a senior political scientist and China specialist at the nonprofit RAND Corporation, which seeks solutions to problems worldwide.
This commentary originally appeared in United Press International on May 12, 2005. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.