China’s Angry Young Protesters

 
 

I wrote last week how at the defence level at least, there seemed to be something of a thaw in relations between China and Japan.

As the Asahi Shimbun noted last week, Japanese Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa and his Chinese counterpart Liang Guanglie met in Hanoi last week, the first time they had done so since tensions flared last month over a territorial dispute over the Senkaku islands (Diaoyu in China).

Meanwhile, the Asahi also reported over the weekend that Chinese and Japanese officials were working to arrange a meeting in Hanoi later this month between Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who will both be attending the East Asia Summit later this month.

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But the picture is still complex, not least because there are domestic forces pushing both sides to take a harder line. As Andy noted over the weekend in Tokyo Notes, Kan has come in for criticism following his handling of the detention of a Chinese fishing trawler captain after the vessel collided with two Japan Coast Guard ships. Initially, the Japanese line was that the matter should be dealt with in the courts, but under intense Chinese pressure, Japan decided to release the captain.

The decision to back down hurt the Kan Cabinet’s poll numbers, with a Yomiuri Shimbun survey showing its approval rating falling from 66 percent in late September to 53 percent at the start of this month. A Mainichi poll showed a similarly precipitous drop.

The opposition Liberal Democratic Party, meanwhile, has also been hammering the ruling Democratic Party of Japan over the issue, while Japanese nationalists have been taking to the streets of Tokyo accusing China of invading the Senkakus and complaining of the ‘weak’ leadership exhibited by the Kan government. The latest demonstration came Saturday, when an estimated 2000 people marched near the Chinese embassy.

But such protests appear to have been dwarfed by some of the anti-Japan protests going on in China, and while I don’t think anyone would accuse the DPJ of orchestrating Saturday’s march in Tokyo, there are signs that there may be an official hand in the Chinese demonstrations.

One place that saw a sizeable anti-Japanese march was Chengdu, the capital of the south-west province of Sichuan. According to the Chengdu Living blog, an estimated 35,000 people took part in a protest on Saturday that saw demonstrators march to a Japanese department store before being confronted by a line of police.

I asked Chengdu Living blogger Charlie, who attended the march and who took some striking images of the protesters, for his take on what he saw. He told me that emotions were running high during the protests and that those leading the crowd by holding signs, yelling slogans, and using megaphones were clearly riled up by the Japan issue (although he added that some marchers were much calmer and even friendly).

I was curious whether in his opinion the marches were, as some have claimed, spontaneous a outpouring of frustration. He told me: ‘I sensed official organization. Something like this doesn't happen without the authorities giving it a green light and that, to me, is evidence enough of this being orchestrated by the party.’

Charlie isn’t the only one who sees an official hand. Hugely popular Chinese blogger Han Han last month reportedly criticized anti-Japan demonstrations as ‘a mass game engineered by the government’ in a post that was deleted by the authorities from his site, but which ended up being widely circulated on the internet.

That China’s government has fanned nationalist anger, especially toward Japan, to divert attention from its internal problems has been widely commented on over the years. But one thing that’s particularly striking about the images from Chengdu is how young almost all of the protesters look. While Japanese nationalists often (though by no means exclusively) draw their ranks from the middle-aged, the protesters in China are almost all typically of student age.

Instead of encouraging its young people to look forward, the Communist Party has instead too often tried to infuse them with a sense of victimhood. The implications of an angry, gender-skewed younger generation growing up and taking positions of power is, for obvious reasons, more than a little troubling to dwell on.

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