The first thing that struck me about the anti-Japanese protests in Beijing on Sunday was how helpful the authorities were, to me and everyone else who went.
Being the goose that i am, i went to the wrong embassy — the old one on Ritan St that’s awaiting demolition. I wasn’t alone, however, for a handful of locals had also made the same mistake. The policemen on duty very obligingly told us where to go, and the options for getting there, and even let us listen in on their radio for the latest update, which was that about 350 people were over there protesting.
I combined for a taxi with a couple from Hebei whose purpose turned out to be similar to mine: they were just going down there to have a look.
When the taxi could take us no further, the police were only too happy to help once again. Verbatim conversation:
Hebei fellow: Where should we go?
Policeman: Are you here to work, or to protest?
Hebei lady: Umm…protest.
Policeman (pointing across the road): That way and turn right.
The protest zone bore all the hallmarks of a well-organized event venue, starting with the roadblocks and the hundreds of evenly-spaced “volunteers” lining the path leading towards the embassy. I asked several of the latter how they came to be here and where they got their red armbands, but the closest i got to answer was, “Uhhh…” (looking around at her friends), “this is not good to say.”
Later on, i asked another young woman, who told me she was from a neighbourhood committee. A friend who i met up with suggested that they were probably also drawn from the ranks of grassroots-level government workers.
Outside the embassy it became apparent that the whole purpose of the roadblocks to was create a long racetrack with hairpin bends at both ends, around which the groups of protesters could march in safety and captivity, under the watchful eyes of the armed police.
Around and around they went, in four or five groups whose numbers anywhere from 50 up to about 200. They carried their banners, chanted their slogans, and occasionally threw volleys of plastic water bottles over the motionless rows of People’s Armed Police as they passed by the embassy. The result:
At one point i said something about the “PLA brothers” across the street, which a fellow onlooker quickly corrected: “The PLA is for attacking the Japanese, the PAP is for attacking the Chinese.” Indeed, the armed police would have been feeling a bit nervous after what happened yesterday (more photos from Netease):
But in the three hours or so that i stood there, i didn’t hear anything remotely controversial yelled — for example, the chant of “打倒汉奸”, or “down with Chinese traitors” that is heard around 1:41 in this video from Saturday’s protests.
The most remarkable thing about the slogans was the frequency with which the protesters came past yelling at the crowds of onlookers (leaders//followers): “Chinese people!//Join in!” Sometimes this bolstered their numbers by one or two, but on most occasions those around me (directly opposite the embassy) stood staring as passively as the laowai in their midst.
It was getting late in the day by the time i got there, so some of the spectators had probably marched around the track a few times, but genuinely angry people really did seem to be a fairly small minority. In contrast, despite the marchers’ direct appeals, the great majority of those present were just there to observe the spectacle of a protest in the heart of the Chinese capital.
Nonetheless, lest i fall into the trap of Beijingcentrism after but a single weekend here, the following is a selection of photos of the havoc wreaked around the country by the mass protests of, according to Xinhua, up to 10,000 in more than 50 other cities.
Eric Fish is right to point out the opportunity that the Diaoyu affair has presented to the ruling party in terms of diverting the Chinese people’s attention away from its Eighteenth Congress, but whether it proves to be a “godsend” is not certain. As Adam Minter and Evan Osnos have both recently observed, since the Chinese party-state has no way of satisfying the demands it has unleashed, this could spell trouble.
The Communist Party has successfully neutralized these types of nationalist mobilization in the past through a combination of suppression of activism and positive media coverage of Japan. The question is how they will manage this in the internet era.