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Thousands of angry locals vent their rage at a foreign embassy, hurling bottles, defacing flags and chanting murderous threats. These aren't Muslims swarming American diplomatic missions because of that tawdry, U.S.-made film ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad. They are Chinese protesters, and their target is Japan. Widespread resentment is still felt in China over Japan's savage wartime atrocities and a feeling that Tokyo has not adequately apologized for them. When the Japanese government decided earlier this month to buy some uninhabited islets in the East China Sea from private owners, a simmering territorial dispute with China over the same outcroppings escalated, and that long-held antipathy exploded.
China is a police state. Protests of this scale, which have convulsed dozens of Chinese cities for days, just don't happen unless the government approves of them. Indeed, Beijing authorities made clear their views on the islands, known as the Diaoyu in China and the Senkaku in Japan, by blaring a recorded message near the Japanese embassy: "Japan has violated China's sovereignty. It is right for you to express your opinion." As protesters elsewhere in China destroyed Japanese cars, the police declined to intervene. Compare this with last year, when the faintest whiff of pro-democracy activism resulted in plainclothes thugs attacking foreign journalists who showed up to cover a possible rally in Beijing. Then, the security presence was so smothering that nary a Chinese protester showed up to express solidarity with the Jasmine Revolution.
In the Muslim world, anti-American protests have betrayed religious, societal and political fault lines graver than those in China. But be they in Benghazi or Beijing, the causes of the demonstrations run far deeper than their immediate pretexts. In China's case, the outpouring of hatred toward the Japanese isn't simply about who owns a collection of rocks in resource-rich waters.
The Chinese leadership, which is facing a once-a-decade transition in the coming weeks, couldn't have asked for a better diversion from the delicate power shift ahead. (In Japan too, a weak government facing an upcoming election may have benefited from looking tough on China.) Already, Beijing's leadership handover has been beset by political scandal, a slowing economy and the two-week disappearance from public view of Xi Jinping, the man expected to assume the helm in China. Vice President Xi finally reappeared on Sept. 15, just as China's state media ran headlines about Beijing dispatching surveillance ships to the contested islands. Banners unfurled in Beijing urged: SUPPORT THE GOVERNMENT! SUPPORT THE ARMY! KILL THE JAPANESE! Mission Distraction accomplished.
In a China where income inequality has spawned mass resentment, protests directed against an outward enemy serve as a release valve. Beijing has primed the pump through history lessons that stress Japan's cruel wartime record. But nationalism is a risky instrument. Xi and current Chinese President Hu Jintao were nowhere to be seen in the iconography of the anti-Japan rallies. (Instead, protesters held aloft portraits of Mao Zedong, whose wartime efforts against the Japanese are admired.) Online commentators called their government weak for not having stood up more forcefully to Tokyo.
In Chinese history, antiforeign rallies have a habit of morphing into anti-government movements. "The government thinks they can control [nationalism], but it can turn into something very dangerous," warns Wan Tao, who as a patriotic hacker a decade ago targeted Japanese government websites. "It's like playing with fire." On Sept. 16, among the few detained during the anti-Japanese protests were a trio in the southern city of Shenzhen who raised banners calling for democracy.
Back in 2004, while meeting a group of young nationalists in Beijing, I spoke with an impassioned man who believed in China's need to defend the disputed islands. Hu Jia went on to become a famous dissident and spent more than three years in jail for his activism. This Sept. 18, the anti-Japan protests took on further resonance because it was the anniversary of "9.18" — the day in 1931 on which Japan unleashed its invasion and occupation of China. As the demonstrations raged, Hu was stopped from leaving his home to buy vegetables by plainclothes officers who monitor him even though he is supposedly a free man. On Twitter, which is banned in China, the 39-year-old wrote: "This 9.18, the shame of the country comes from the existence of tyranny." He didn't mean the Japanese.
Hannah Beech — with reporting by Chengcheng Jiang/Beijing, TIME Magazine