Beijing keeps lid on anti-Japan sentiment

A professor's cellphone buzzed here Wednesday 20 minutes into a discussion on Michel Foucault, the French deconstructionist: It was a text message from the Beijing police department, sent to hundreds of thousands of city residents, urging them in a cool and friendly tone to "be patriotic in a rational way," and not to join in any emotional or illegal gatherings over the national May 1 holiday week.

Two weeks after vehement anti-Japanese rallies across China, the government in Beijing appears to have consolidated its position and stepped in to control the protests, though nationalist sentiments remain strong. It has done so despite repeated calls from Internet activists to take to the streets on May 4 - a dramatic date in Chinese history when, in 1919, some 5,000 Beijing University students marched in the first modern Chinese mass movement to protest Japanese exploitation of China in the Versailles Treaty.

Yet using the blunt tool of visibly increased police presence and reports of arrests, and a set of high tech messages about "rational patriotism" tailored to students, business owners, and educated Chinese, authorities appear to have shut down the anti-Japanese operation, much of which was fed by the Internet generation in China. A variety of websites with names like Chinese Patriotic Federation, and anti-Japan bloggers using pseudonyms like Lonely Star have posted comments, on the eve of May 4, about Japanese war crimes and lack of repentance. At the same time, they have urged Chinese not to participate in activities leading to instability.

Messages and websites encouraging Chinese to take to the streets were not found in an informal survey Wednesday - and experts say they may have been officially removed from cyberspace.

A message of "four no's" outlining rational patriotism was delivered in state-run media Wednesday. "Strictly forbidden" is the use of text messages and the Web for organizing gatherings, and any "unauthorized demostrations" are illegal.

"I am sympathetic with the feeling on May 1 to have marches in Nanjing," writes "Lonely Star" about protests that did not come off in that city, the site of a well-documented massacre of Chinese civilians by Japanese soldiers. "But I ask you anyway not to participate."

Anti-Japanese sentiments have spiked here over Chinese fears that Tokyo could get a seat on the UN Security Council, and they are fueled by a new Tokyo-approved history text that fails to discuss Japanese aggression around Asia during World War II. As a backdrop, there is competition between the two historical nemeses over needed energy, new markets, and strategic position in Asia. As in the 1919 May 4 movement, when Chinese conducted the first organized boycott of Japanese goods, Chinese today are conducting a quietly discussed but widespread boycott of many Japanese products - though the current effort appears less systematic.

On April 21, at an international forum in Jakarta, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi offered an apology for its role in World War II. But the story was muted in China, and some students here had not heard about it. Possibly out of concern over anti-Japanese passions on the street, Chinese state media omitted stories the next day, April 22, when 80 Japanese lawmakers visited the Yasukuni Shrine. The shrine houses the remains of several Class A war criminals, and visits to it by leading politicians have come to symbolize Tokyo's obtuseness over its past behavior.

May 4 conjures deep passions in China. By 1918, the country had sent nearly 100,000 laborers to help the allies in France; at least 2,500 died. Yet at war's end, China discovered that Japan had worked a secret treaty with the allies ensuring a claim on a chunk of eastern China around Shandong. Outrage resulted in China's refusal to sign the Versailles Treaty.

Instead, a major opposition movement arose - the first real questioning of Western and Japanese treatment of the Chinese. A national identity began to emerge from May 4, based on a need to affirm greater fairness. But the focus of anger was aimed in many directions, including officialdom in Beijing. Some analysts here say the government won't allow a May 4 protest because of uncertainty over the direction the protest could take China.

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