At a time of increased tensions between East Asia's two largest powers, Japan's foreign minister Sunday summoned China's ambassador, following one of the most provocative anti-Japanese demonstrations in many years in China.
In Beijing Saturday, thousands of jeering Chinese mobbed riot police outside the Japanese Embassy, throwing eggs and rocks. Protest spread to several large cities in the south Sunday, as Chinese massed outside Japanese stores and consulates, calling for a boycott of Japanese products and demanding that Japan own up to war crimes of 60 years ago.
The underlying cause of the protests is widely regarded to be a growing fear in Beijing that rival Japan may become a permanent member of the UN Security Council, should UN reform proposals be adopted in September. Washington recently began openly backing Japan's longstanding bid for a seat.
That brought a swift response from Beijing. An Internet petition against the move, for example, held partly on the official Xinhua news website, got 25 million signatures.
While China may regard the demonstrations as part of a larger strategy to thwart Japan's UN bid, the outbursts play into a deepening apprehension in Japan over its vulnerability in a region with a nuclear North Korea and a more powerful China.
The unusually vitriolic protests "create uncertainty about Beijing at a time when China is rising economically and militarily," one diplomatic source notes.
Japan's ambassador to China, Anami Koreshige, said the incident was "gravely regrettable" and called on Chinese authorities to protect Japanese citizens and businesses, as well as the embassy and other consulates in China. Japan's NHK channel has covered the protests extensively.
Beijing is widely thought to have tacitly supported the protests. Yet popular anger against Japan is so raw that it takes little effort to spark.
Japan's obdurate denial of its wartime past deeply offends China and South Korea. Last week, Tokyo officially approved a history text that is a "brazen glorification of Japan's colonial expansion," notes the Korea Herald. In Beijing many protesters, including Wan Ping, a Tsinghua University student, said that "Japan is not ready to be on the Security Council if it lies to its people about history."
Recent months have brought a list of grievances between China and Tokyo. Along with the Security Council bid and the history textbook, Japan stated on the Chinese Lunar New Year that the Senkaku Islands were officially Japanese. In February, Japan and the US declared a closer military bond. Last summer tensions rose as Japan defeated China at the Asia Cup soccer games in Beijing.
In the southern city of Shenzhen Sunday, about 10,000 protesters surrounded a Japanese-run Jasco supermarket and threw water bottles, the Associated Press reported. And in Guangzhou, about 3,000 people marched toward the Japanese Consulate General, though police prevented demonstrators from getting too close. Hong Kong Cable Television also showed a large crowd protesting outside a shopping center in the city.
In Beijing on Saturday, riot police and troops were deployed over much of the Chaoyang district where foreign embassies are located. Police cars crawled along the streets on a sunny afternoon with patrol lights flashing. A crowd of many thousands, including some people with children, walked from west Beijing's "Silicon Valley" street to the Japanese Embassy. Along a small stretch of road in front of the Japanese ambassador's residence, a Japanese car was overturned, and the crowd briefly went out of control. In front of the Japanese Embassy itself (located across from the American ambassador's residence) the collective cry "Boycott Japan" was heard until past 10 p.m. Around the city, shouts of "Xiao Riben," Mandarin for the derogatory "little Japanese," were heard.
At one point, as the crowd approached a street with the Japanese and Polish embassies on either side, a smaller group of Chinese were allowed to race toward the marchers, creating a small frenzy. Protesters were not only allowed to hurl objects, but police in some cases helped create space for them to do so. During the most intense period, city police around the Polish Embassy were seen chatting and sharing takeout food.
Symbols, gestures, and posters allowed on the street were unusually provocative and profane. In one, a Chinese swordsman was slicing through a Japanese rising sun symbol. Another read, "Take a big knife and chop off head of Japanese devil."
Not since 1985, when the then Japanese prime minister visited the Yasukuni Shrine, has Beijing allowed such a demonstration.
While described as a spontaneous rally, the organized nature of the Saturday protest seemed apparent to some observers. Areas for press, protesters, and riot police were taped off. Movement was carefully organized: crowds were sent past the Japanese Embassy, then to buses to usher them out. One policeman told an approaching reporter that a detour was necessary, since "political activity" had been scheduled.
A seat for Japan on the Security Council would alter China's current status as the only Asian member of the council. While Beijing has supported multilateralism in much of the world, it has been reluctant to do so in Asia, its closest sphere of influence.
Here, most of the relationships between neighboring states and Beijing are bilateral.
Some Western diplomats say that while China has shown its unpredictability, Tokyo continues to give its neighbors a target. "Japan has a problem with its neighbors and its neighbors all say so," notes a senior Western diplomat. "Yet they are solid allies of Washington. We still don't know which way China is going."
One protester said he was embarrassed that his friends were throwing bottles at the Embassy.
"I was at the American embassy in 1999 [when it was attacked after the accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade] and I asked my friends not to throw things at that time, too."