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Sep 17, 2012 | 20:01 GMT

2 mins read

Protests in China Over Disputed Islands

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Protests in China over Disputed Islands

Protests have broken out in at least 85 cities across China over the Japanese government's Sept. 12 decision to buy three of the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands (there are five total) from their private Japanese owner. 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, 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. Beijing seized upon Japan's decision to buy the islands in order to shift national attention away from China's domestic problems, including the upcoming generational leadership transition, slowing economic growth, increased public awareness of government corruption and growing international criticism of China's assertive actions in the South China Sea. Although the Chinese government and official media outlets have maintained the steady stream of nationalistic and at times inflammatory rhetoric, the government is now trying to regain control over the protests. 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. The protests could also take on a life of their own and expand beyond the island dispute to other grievances against the Chinese government itself.

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