Japanese firms brace for violence in China over disputed islands

Panasonic and Canon announced shutdowns in China on Monday, and firms urged expatriates to stay indoors after protests over Japan's purchase of disputed Islands got out of hand Saturday.

Tyrone Siu/REUTERS
Demonstrators damage a glass window advertisement for Japanese Seibu department stores during a protest against Japan's decision to purchase disputed islands, which Japan calls the Senkaku and China calls the Diaoyu, in Shenzhen, south China's Guangdong province Sept. 16, 2012.

Japanese companies and expatriates in China battened down the hatches Monday, bracing for another wave of anti-Japanese violence in a continuing crisis over ownership of a disputed group of islands.

Japanese schools closed until further notice, Panasonic and Canon announced they were suspending operations at their Chinese plants, and Japanese firms were quietly advised by the authorities to keep their doors closed on Tuesday.

“We now have very ominous signs that this will be a lasting crisis,”  Zhu Feng, a professor at the School of International Studies at Peking University, warns. “At the moment there is no contact at any level between the two sides, though they urgently need to talk.”

The defensive moves followed a weekend of demonstrations in more than 20 Chinese cities that saw demonstrators attack Japanese diplomatic facilities, restaurants, and other businesses. Toyota and Honda auto dealerships were set on fire in the port city of Qingdao Saturday.

The officially sanctioned demonstrations, which gathered tens of thousands of people across the country, were called to express anger at the Japanese government’s decision last week to purchase from their private owner three of the disputed islands in the East China Sea. The uninhabited rocky outcrops are known in China – which claims sovereignty over them – as the Diaoyu, and in Japan – which controls them - as the Senkaku islands.

Some analysts suggest that Beijing has made a major issue out of the purchase at the behest of hard-liners in the leadership, possibly including the People’s Liberation Army. 

“It seems that some elements would like to put down markers for the next government,” due to take over after a once-in-a-decade leadership transition in the next few weeks. “They hope to make it harder for the incoming administration to be flexible,” says one Western diplomat. 

Tuesday threatens to bring more violence.

Sensitive anniversary

The day marks the 81st anniversary of the Manchurian Incident, a staged attack on a Japanese railroad that provided the pretext for Japan’s 1931 invasion and subsequent occupation of northeastern China. Sept. 18 has long been burned into the Chinese psyche as a day of shame and is a sensitive date even when Beijing’s relations with Tokyo are not strained.

The government appears keen, however, to ensure that demonstrations do not get out of hand, as they did in the southern city of Shenzhen on Saturday, when riot police had to use tear gas and water cannon to disperse angry protesters.

A front page editorial in the People’s Daily, the official organ of the ruling Communist Party, cautioned on Monday that although “our anger is irrepressible and the enthusiasm of the youth of China must have release … a civilized attitude abiding by the rule of law should be the basic conduct of the citizenry.”

The editorial urged protesters to “express [their] patriotism in a legal and orderly way.”

But the islands themselves could become the focus of trouble. A group of Hong Kong activists are planning to try to land on the islands on Tuesday, according to China National Radio. Meanwhile, around 1,000 Chinese fishing boats are expected to head for waters near the islands – following the end on Sunday night of a three-month moratorium on fishing there for conservation purposes – as soon as a typhoon warning is lifted. 

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda pledged Sunday night to “firmly protect the Senkaku” and to “take all possible measures for that.” On Friday, Japanese coast guard vessels forced six Chinese surveillance ships to leave the waters near the islands, but some observers suggest they may return to offer Chinese fishermen protection.

“Given Beijing’s insistence that the Diaoyu are in Chinese waters it is more likely the fishing boats will enter them,” says Professor Feng. “That means a risk of clashes and a vicious circle."

Yan Xuetong, head of the Institute for Contemporary International Relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing adds: “I cannot tell how this is going to end. But I think the crisis will continue to escalate.”

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