China analysts say that the two-pronged approach is carefully calibrated to increase pressure on Japan, but that it is also driven by domestic politics, as officials jockey for position ahead of the approaching, once-in-a-decade leadership transition.
“The party is skilled at manipulating such public opinion . . . and the signs that these demonstrations were organized by the government is very high,” said Liu Junning, a former researcher at a government-related think tank and now an independent political analyst. “The protests come when the leaders need one to come, and the protests will stop when they want them to stop.”
On Monday, Chinese officials sent signals that they were looking to taper the protests over the disputed islands — called Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China — especially in the face of their effects on China-Japan trade.
Some Japanese companies on Monday temporarily shut down their factories in China, and there were reports of work stoppages for brand names such as Nissan, Mazda and Canon. Air tickets from China to Japan have reportedly been canceled en masse. Many Japanese-brand stores closed and posted Chinese flags on their doors to ward off vandals and posters swearing their love for and allegiance to China.
The precautions followed violent protests over the weekend. Eggs and bottles were thrown at the Japanese Embassy in Beijing, businesses’ windows were smashed and Japanese cars were bashed on streets across China. In southern parts of the country, protesters clashed with riot police.
Editorials by most major state-run media in China on Monday called for restraint, “sensible patriotism” and “levelheadedness.” Authorities also significantly bulked up the police presence in Beijing and threatened the arrest of “unlawful” protesters in certain regions in preparation for Tuesday’s anniversary of the Japanese invasion of China in the 1930s.
The anger is rooted in bitterness that has lingered in China for decades. Chinese leaders are using those feelings in part for reasons that have little to do with Japan, experts say.
Even as early as last Tuesday, as small groups began demonstrating in front of the Japanese Embassy, there were signs of government encouragement. Mistaken for protesters, two journalists passing by were met by plainclothes police officers and instructed on where to go to more effectively protest.
Interviews with protesters were monitored by plainclothes police, who allowed some to express their anger at Japan but swiftly intervened in several cases when questions turned personal. They asked how the protesters had heard of the demonstration and where they worked.