The first sign of just how closely the Chinese authorities were monitoring and controlling today’s anti-Japanese demonstrations here came on my cellphone.
It was an SMS from the Beijing police. Barely had I arrived in the vicinity of the Japanese embassy, the target of a fourth day of protests over a territorial dispute, than the message popped up on my screen.
“The Beijing Public Security Bureau reminds you to please express your patriotism in a rational and orderly fashion and to follow police instructions. Thank you for your cooperation,” it read.
The Chinese government was clearly anxious that Tuesday’s demonstrations, marking the anniversary of the incident that sparked Japan’s 1931 occupation of Northeastern China, should not turn violent, as had happened over the weekend.
The protesters, mostly young men, many waving red and gold Chinese flags or portraits of Mao Zedong, were doing as they were told by organizers. Obediently they formed up in small groups and awaited their turn to march past the embassy, where they slowed down just long enough to throw bottles of water at the gates.
Any hotheads in the crowd who might have wanted to do more were dissuaded by the sight of helmeted riot police standing shoulder to shoulder along the roadside, reinforcing thousands of police officers who were making sure, megaphones in hand, that everybody kept moving. Also reinforcing the police were civilian security volunteers wearing armbands, and reinforcing them were dayglo-orange-waistcoated traffic wardens.
Then the protesters marched on down the street in glorious late summer sunshine, chanting slogans such as “Japanese dogs out of China,” or “China wake up,” and even reminding themselves, in unison, to “listen to orders.”
A block down the street they turned around, marched back down the way they had come, then turned around once more and started all over again.
“I’ve been round three times already and I won’t go home until everybody else does,” said Zhang Chong, a young clothes vendor, his cheek decorated with a Chinese flag decal.
“We didn’t lose the Diaoyu islands in Mao Zedong’s time and we will not allow them to be lost by our generation,” Mr. Zhang said, explaining why he had taken to the streets.
The worst outbreak of anti-Japanese sentiment for many years was sparked last week when the Japanese government bought three of the uninhabited islands in the East China Sea known here as the Diaoyu and in Japan as the Senkaku. China claims sovereignty over the islands, which are under Japanese control and were privately owned until last week.
The Chinese government responded by fiercely denouncing the purchase, formally specifying the geographical coordinates of the waters that it claims around the islands, sending surveillance vessels to the islands and sanctioning anti-Japanese demonstrations around the country, some of which torched Japanese-owned businesses on Saturday.
Nothing like that was to be allowed on Tuesday, it was clear. As the protesters approached the Japanese embassy, a loudspeaker mounted on a police car played them a tape loop: “The Chinese government shares the people’s feelings” a woman’s voice assured them. “The government has made it clear it will not accept any territorial infringement. But once you have expressed yourself, please move on.”