They queued up behind the red metal fence on Liangmaqiao Road, assembled in groups of roughly 100, as if waiting to go on a carnival ride. When their turn came, a blue-uniformed policeman slid the fence aside and the protesters marched briskly toward the Japanese Embassy, shouting slogans about war, history and the ownership of five uninhabited islands.
"Declare war on Japan!" some yelled in furyover the island dispute that continues to escalate. "Japan! Apologize!" others screamed, their anger based in unaddressed grievances from the Second World War, top of mind on the anniversary of Japan's 1931 invasion of Manchuria. A line of Riot police walked in front of and behind each group of 100, preventing them from ever forming a mass that couldn't easily be controlled.
It was a day of orchestrated and, so far, symbolic confrontation in China and at sea. Sept. 18 is seen as a day of national humiliation here, marked with protests even when relations between Beijing and Tokyo are businesslike. But the anniversary this year came amid a flammable dispute over the islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. , adding fuel to an eighth consecutive day of anti-Japanese protests in more than 100 Chinese cities.
The protests in Beijing on Tuesday added fuel to an eighth consecutive day of anti-Japanese protests in more than 100 Chinese cities.
Each group of protesters was allowed to pause briefly in front of Japan's stern grey embassy on Liangmaqiao Road to hurl plastic bottles and eggs at its gate.
Then they continued their brisk walk east to the end of the kilometre-long protest area, where police told them to loop around and march back to where they began.
More bottles were hurled on the return trip. Then it was another group's turn.
Some of the protesters came to Liangmaqiao Road on their own or with their families to vent their rage. Many more were organized by their workplaces and given the day off to join the structured display of patriotism. "Our manager brought us here," whispered a cleaning lady walking with two dozen co-workers wearing identical bright orange uniforms. "We have the day off."
China wants the world to acknowledge its anger. In particular, it wants the United States to understand that the Communist Party government needs to respond to the popular outrage generated by the Japanese government's purchase (from a private Japanese family) of the disputed islands. If Japan doesn't bow down to the demands of 1.3 billion enraged people and withdraw the move, the message is, who knows where this crisis could lead?
China's defence minister, Gen. Liang Guanglie, told his U.S. counterpart Leon Panetta on Tuesday that while he still hoped for a diplomatic solution, Beijing reserved the right to take "further actions" over the islands. Those actions appear to be unfolding as a flotilla of some 1,000 Chinese fishing boats is reportedly en route to the disputed waters, escorted by patrol boats assigned to protect them.
Japan's coastguard said three Chinese maritime surveillance ships briefly entered what Japan considers its territorial waters around the disputed islets on Tuesday, but they and seven other nearby ships had left the area by late evening.
The challenge to Tokyo – which has controlled the water around the Senkaku Islands since 1895, except for the period of U.S. occupation following the Second World War – is plain: does it dare intervene and stop Chinese fleet from fishing in waters that Beijing claims as its own?
As the marchers on Liangmaqiao shouted their anger, a police loudspeaker offered soothing words: "The government has strongly declared our attitude ... We will guard the Diaoyu Islands. We hope you will support the government and express your patriotism according to the law."
The last part sounded pleading. While China's Communist Party government whipped up the anti-Japanese fervour through state-run media, and has facilitated the protests to date, there's a sense the authorities are now worried the rage they created could get out of hand.
Recent days have seen Japanese factories, restaurants and even Japanese-brand cars (owned by Chinese drivers) attacked by mobs. Flagship Japanese companies such as Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Canon and Panasonic have been forced to shutter their operations in China this week, throwing thousands of Chinese temporarily out of work and jeopardizing a $345-billion a year trading relationship.
Beijing is worried such anger might spill over and perhaps even develop new targets. Portraits of Mao Zedong were again prominent at Tuesday marches, accompanied by slogans that suggested some protesters longed for stronger leadership than that offered by current President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. "Chairman Mao, the people really miss you," read one large banner. (A 15-year-old said that they had been given the Mao posters by protest organizers, and had been asked to return them at the end of the day.)
"I firmly support China declaring war on Japan," said Xu Hui, a 41-year-old former soldier who wore a red Mao pin on the lapel of knock-off U.S. Army fatigues. Afterward a policeman approached and asked Mr. Xu about his conversation with a foreign journalist.
While Mao portraits and calls for the annihilation of Japan were allowed, other political messages were not. Several websites reported that three protesters in the southern city of Shenzhen were detained Sunday after they held aloft a banner calling for "freedom, democracy, human rights and constitutional rule" in China. Photographs of another protest banner supporting purged Communist Party politician Bo Xilai were widely distributed via the Sina Weibo social networking site.
China's rulers are used to stamping out any public demonstrations as soon as they begin, so seeing tens of thousands marching for days – and drawing up their own slogans – has them understandably on edge.
Wang Heyan, a reporter with Caixin, one of China's most independent news organizations, described how he was invited by police on Sunday to join the demonstrations in Beijing. But when he asked if he could shout "punish corruption," police told him that "only slogans concerned with Diaoyu Islands are allowed."
Even approved shouting may be quieted in the days ahead as China's leadership turns back to the topic that always concerns it most – the stability of Communist Party rule. The crisis comes at a particularly sensitive time, just weeks ahead of a once-per-decade transfer of power that will see Mr. Hu and Mr. Wen step aside in favour of a new generation of leaders headed by Vice-President Xi Jinping.
"Protests should not turn to the dark side," warned a headline in the Global Times, published by the official People's Daily.
"The government trying to find a way to taper off these protests, which I think surprised them with their anger and violence," said Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, who covers China and northeast Asia for the International Crisis Group, noting the thicker police presence Tuesday than at previous demonstrations.
There were other, subtler, signs that Beijing may want to start cooling off the street anger, even as it seeks to maintain diplomatic pressure on Tokyo. For the past five days, an outdoor video screen in the Sanlitun commercial district has played endless anti-Japanese propaganda, pictures of the disputed islands mixed with photographs of angry demonstrators and set to martial tunes.
Late Tuesday, as the protests in front of the Japanese Embassy were petering off for the evening, the screen abruptly switched to different a montage: puppies and kittens, playing happily and carefree.
- With a report from Reuters