Shortly after leaving China, in September 2012, I heard the news of an outbreak of Anti-Japanese riots throughout the country. The cause of the dispute was a territorial conflict between the two countries over a tiny set of islands in the East China Sea; known as the Diaoyu Islands in Chinese, and the Senkkaku islands in Japanese. Both countries have repeatedly claimed that they are the rightful owners of the Island.
The small and uninhabited rocks are of interest to both countries as they are located near an important shipping lane for exports, and are thought to have mineral supplies. The conflict escalated into a serious of anti-Japanese protests last year after Japan purchased the islands in a private sale from their owner.
Over the weekend of the 15th of September, riots broke out in 80 cities across China, many of them continuing through to the following Monday and Tuesday. Some of protests escalated into violence and arson, with many Japanese buildings, cars and shops completely destroyed in the process.
Whilst riots are not uncommon to China – thousands take place every year up and down the country – they are rarely allowed to escalate to escalate to such a level. The role of the government-run police therefore was questionable in this instance.
On face value the demonstrations appeared to be the result of hundreds of thousands of angry Chinese citizens, each holding the nationalist territorial claims over the islands of high importance. However, my suspicions are that the Chinese government had some (if not complete) involvement during the protests.
My first justification for this viewpoint, which is briefly outlined above, is that Chinese authorities were notably more tolerant of the anti-Japanese protests than they have been towards any other form of activism in the past. China is not alien to protests, with many occurring each year. Already this calendar year thousands of Chinese citizens have protested over newspaper censorship and North Korea nuclear testing among other causes.
However, these protests are rarely allowed to reach a level of extreme violence in China. As soon as Chinese government officials catch news of a protest, armoured police arrive at the scene in large numbers and stamp it out. If a demonstration does manage to become extremely violent, as was the case in the environmental pollution protests last year, those involved will be arrested, and usually face a prison sentence.
Yet the images of the anti-Japanese protests in China show a significant amount of constraint on the part of the government, with Government officials allowing violence to take place in their presence.
Why were the holding back? The unnecessarily long period of protesting and laxity of government intervention suggests that, to some extent, the government allowed was allowing the riots to happen.
But what were China’s leaders actually involved?
Tellingly a leader of one of the regional protests was repeatedly identified as Zhu Gu, a CCP member, and the director of a police station in Xi’an. Claims have also been made that government officials instructed protesters to move in front of cameras and encouraged anger on Chinese social networking sites prior to the events. The actual involvement of the country’s leaders, however, will never be known.
My second justification for suspecting government involvement in the anti-japanese protests is due to the seemingly irrelevant nature of the issue to the lives of China’s citizens. China is no stranger to social injustice and extreme human rights violations. Repeated human rights reports have been filed against China; ranging from forced abortions under the one-child policy, to the 500,000 people enduring punitive detention without trial. In contrast, the conflict over the islands, even to the most extreme nationalists in China, is frustrating at best. Their daily standard of living will not be altered whether China has ownership of the islands or not, and their human rights will remain unchanged. Many Chinese people have actually expressed dismay at the outbursts. Thus it seems puzzling as to why Chinese citizens turned out in their thousands to cause mass destruction over an issue of such questionable relevance to their own lives.
What would be in it for the Government?
The riots were timed in a period of political instability in China, with a forthcoming leadership transition. It was evident that when the new CCP government took office, China could face public opposition against another era of communist party rule. Calls for democracy are not scarce in China. Thus it might have made sense for the government to use China’s national identity as a way of uniting its citizens and directing anger away from China’s leaders and towards Japan’s.
A second theory is that China has strategic interests in the Islands due to their supposedly rich oil and mineral reserves. If China is contemplating entering into a stronger level of dispute with Japan over the islands, their efforts might appear more legitimate when backed by the strong national interest of their citizens. This nationalism within China can be best demonstrated by the manipulation of an outbreak of riots throughout the country.
The western world will probably never know how sincere the events of last September were; all we can do is speculate. However judging on China’s observable characteristics there appears to be more to the Japan-China dispute than what meets the eye of the television cameras.