Some 1,000 Chinese fishing vessels are reportedly on their way to the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands after the end of a Chinese ban on fishing and an announcement by the Chinese fisheries administration that it will provide protection and assistance for Chinese finishing boats around the disputed islands. The boats set sail as large (and at times violent) anti-Japanese protests spread throughout Chinese cities, leading several Japanese companies to announce at least temporary suspensions of operations in China.
To make matters worse, this event is taking place just days ahead of the 81st anniversary of the Mukden Incident, which triggered Japan's invasion of Manchuria in the years leading up to World War II. But as the Chinese government rallies the population and stirs nationalist fervor to distract the public from domestic affairs, Beijing may soon find itself unable to back down from the dispute.
A Useful Distraction
Beijing quickly seized upon the Japanese government's Sept. 12 decision to buy three of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands (there are five total) from their private Japanese owner in order to shift national attention away from China's domestic problems. These include the upcoming generational leadership transition, slowing economic growth, increased public awareness of corruption in the Communist Party and government and growing international criticism of China's assertive actions in the South China Sea. Keeping Chinese citizens focused on the perennial Japanese "aggressor" helped to distract them from the numerous issues at home.Anti-Japanese protests quickly broke out in Chinese cities, often with the assistance of the local governments and security forces. The demonstrations grew to massive proportions over the weekend, affecting at least 85 cities across China. In major cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing, protesters marched outside Japanese diplomatic compounds amid a heavy security presence, which largely prevented violence. In Xian, one of the cities that led anti-Japanese protests in 2005 and 2010, tens of thousands of people marched to the city's center on the morning of Sept. 15. The protest turned violent as Japanese-made cars were overturned and smashed and Japanese restaurants and shops were attacked. In the southern city of Changsha, protesters set fires in the streets and attacked and looted a large Japanese-owned department store. The scene was similar in a number of other cities, including Qingdao, Shenzhen and Guangzhou.
Although the government and official media outlets have maintained the steady stream of strong, patriotic and at times inflammatory rhetoric, the government is now trying to regain control over the protests. The official Xinhua news agency published an article Sept. 17 entitled "Wisdom Needed in the Expression of Patriotism," which warned the public to be rational and obey the law during protests. Some local public security bureaus are also beginning to take a stronger approach to dealing with the protesters. Guangzhou's public security bureau announced Sept. 17 that at least 10 rioters had been detained by police forces after they smashed Japanese vehicles and vandalized Japanese shops. In Xian, public gatherings, demonstrations and marches lacking official approval are now strictly prohibited. But the state continues to make numerous statements concerning its rights to the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands and highlighting Japan's purported violation of Chinese sovereignty.
Problems with Backing Down
A major problem for China is that the government has framed the Japanese move not as an administrative action that simply shifted ownership of the islands from a private Japanese citizen to the government (which had already been renting the islands to ensure that nobody was allowed to build or land on them), but rather as the Japanese taking something that was under Chinese control. In fact, the islands have long been under Japanese — not Chinese — control, but portraying the issue in this manner served domestic political needs. Chinese officials, who have stirred up the protests and declared that they will defend Chinese sovereignty, now find that their ability to de-escalate the situation is limited since any de-escalation could be seen as weakness and capitulation to the Japanese.
Beijing has already warned that there will be economic ramifications if Japan does not back down on its claim to the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. Nearly a quarter of all Japanese overseas non-manufacturing enterprises are in China, and Japanese exports to China in 2011 amounted to $161.4 billion. Additionally, Chinese tourists account for more than 40 percent of foreign tourists to Japan. However, China would not be unaffected by a serious economic conflict with Japan. China had a $22 billion trade surplus with Japan in 2011, while Japanese firms account for 4 percent of incoming foreign direct investment in China and Japanese businesses directly employ one million Chinese workers. Attacks on Japanese cars and businesses also harm the Chinese citizens who own and operate many of them, and several Japanese companies are now considering temporarily suspending operations in China — or worse, reducing or ending such operations, which could lead companies from other countries to follow suit.
Another problem for Beijing is that, as in previous waves of anti-Japanese protests, the protests may begin with patriotic fervor but they can quickly take on a mob mentality or provide an opening for demonstrations against other issues, such as government corruption and social grievances. Already there are signs of this — though sporadic — in the current protests. Anti-government forces or citizens looking to bring their own issues to the table can exploit the mass of individuals on the streets — something Beijing is much less willing to tolerate. Attempts to rein in protests, if too aggressive, can quickly shift attention away from Japan and the island dispute and toward the Chinese government itself.
Beijing knows Tokyo will not change its administrative control over the islands, even if Japanese officials attempt to reduce tensions by seeking fisheries and other economic talks with Taiwan or China. And both sides have, at least thus far, shown some restraint by sending coast guard and fisheries administration ships to the islands instead of naval vessels. For China's leadership, there is a benefit to keeping the patriotic protests active and keeping the Diaoyu/Senkaku issue front and center, at least until the leadership transition is complete next March. But the longer the protests are allowed to go on, the more likely they are to change focus and the more likely Beijing is to lose control of them. Yet, by framing the issue as one of active Japanese usurpation of Chinese territory, it is difficult to see where and how Beijing can step back without being seen as weak by the Chinese people. And at a time of political transition, being seen as weak is not something the Communist Party can allow.