Political clashes over the uninhabited Senkaku / Diaoyu islands (the name differing whether you sympathise respectively with the Japanese or Chinese territorial claim) are nothing new. This weeks tit-for-tat flag stunts by activists from both sides are just the latest incidents in the ever-complex web of island sovereignty disputes between China, Japan, Russia, Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam.
Historians, geographers and international lawyers can argue the various cases ad infinitum, whilst politicians around the world cautiously watch regional tensions rise. However, the response to the latest Senkaku / Diaoyu spat also casts an interesting light on domestic Chinese politics, which is equally as important as the foreign-relations dimension.
Following the detention and deportation of Chinese activists who attempted the raise their flag on the islands and the subsequent successful flag-raising by Japanese nationalists, significant anti-Japan protests began to sweep through Eastern Chinese cities. Businesses and goods from Sushi bars to Japanese made police cars were destroyed, whilst demonstrators waved banners and yelled slogans, in some cases calling for a military occupation of the islands.
Unlike the vast majority of protests in China these were apparently held with police permission and, despite some officers being pelted with missiles, nobody was arrested. In a further illustration of the contrast with other demonstrations, those attending were able to share their videos and comments online with relatively little censorship.
Such exceptional disregard of the general repression meted out by security forces both on the street and on the web will come as little surprise to seasoned China-watchers. The CCP has long exploited deep-seated anti-Japanese sentiment to periodically bolster its own support whilst allowing citizens a degree of space to publicly vent anger. Fervent nationalism, a ‘common foe’ and limited freedom to protest helps to keep Chinese citizens from turning their anger against the government over issues such as the slowing economy and high profile political scandal currently facing the country.
In the run-up to the leadership-handover later this year, a unified and patriotic citizenship focussing on the supposed “territorial aggression” of their neighbours rather than the shortcomings of their own politicians, could serve the Chinese elite rather well.
However this is a dangerous game which may yet cause the government some serious problems. Allowing people onto the streets in this manner may act as a political ‘safety-valve’ to let off steam, but it may equally give a taste for dissent. Similarly the skills that people can gain form even the most fleeting of protest movements are easily transferable to other situations.
Ultimately, whilst the CCP has previously been able to roll out anti-Japanese demonstrations then cut them off at an politically-suitable time, it may not always be so easy to put the protest-genie back in the bottle. Thousands of people marching against Japanese territorial claims may encourage China’s leaders….a similar march over land rights, poverty or civil liberties would have a very different effect altogether.