Police across China battled to control widespread anti-Japan demonstrations for a second day on Sunday, as Beijing appeared to be treading a fine line between sending a political message to Japan without allowing social unrest that could destabilise the political transition in China.
Thousands of apparently well-organised demonstrators, some of them carrying portraits of former Communist party leader Mao Zedong, were met with a heavy police presence in several cities nationwide as the Japanese prime minister called on Beijing to protect the country’s nationals and companies in China.
The weekend protests, the biggest flare-up of anti-Japan sentiment since at least 2005, were sparked by Tokyo’s decision to buy the Japanese-controlled Senkaku islands. Sovereignty over the islands, located in the East China Sea and known as Diaoyu in China, is also claimed by both Beijing and Taiwan. On Friday six Chinese state vessels entered Japanese waters around the islands, a move condemned by Tokyo.
The demonstrations come at a time of heightened tension in China as it prepares for a once-in-a-decade change in leadership which is expected to see Xi Jinping, the vice-president, promoted to replace Hu Jintao as president. Mr Xi on Saturday appeared in public for the first time in two weeks after an absence that prompted speculation about his health as well as the possibility of a power struggle within the Communist party ahead of the expected 18th Party Congress due to take place in October.
For Beijing, the risk of allowing such large protests is that they could be used to air social grievances that have nothing to do with the disputed islands, political commentators said, pointing out that some protesters carried placards attacking government corruption as well as pro-nationalist slogans.
Most of Sunday’s protests appeared to be non-violent, but in Shenzhen, the mainland Chinese city closest to Hong Kong, police used tear gas and water cannons in an attempt to disperse thousands of people who gathered near the municipal government building, according to eyewitnesses.
”It started as a very peaceful protest [but] became a protest against the police rather than an anti-Japanese [one] after people got angry with the police for beating people”, said one local reporter.
In Beijing on Saturday, demonstrators hurled rocks, eggs and bottles at the Japanese embassy. Japanese broadcaster NHK said some Japanese-run factories including a Panasonic facility and a supermarket in the eastern port city of Qingdao were attacked and one was burnt.
On Sunday Yoshihiko Noda, Japan’s prime minister, called on Beijing to guarantee the safety of Japanese citizens and property in the country.
“Unfortunately, what is happening affects the safety of Japanese nationals and corporations,” said Mr Noda adding he would “strongly demand that the Chinese government ensure the security of Japanese citizens”. The Japanese embassy in Beijing issued a statement warning its nationals to be cautious about going out alone at night, speaking Japanese in public or taking a taxi alone.
In Shanghai, police tried to place protesters into small groups and accompanied them as they marched through city streets around the Japanese consulate, stopping to shout slogans at Japanese-owned restaurants where business appeared to continue as normal. The Shanghai Police microblog praised the demonstrators for their restraint.
The official Xinhua news agency on Sunday night called for “wisdom” and urged protesters to “be rational and obey the law”, refrain from “smashing and looting” and express their patriotism without “disrupting domestic social order”.
But relations between the second and third biggest economies in the world could be further strained by the imminent start of China’s fishing season, which could see many boats attempting to fish in Japanese-controlled waters.
The Japanese government faced a further complication with the sudden death on Sunday morning of Japan’s incoming ambassador to China, Shinichi Nishimiya.
Additional reporting by Gu Yu and Jamil Anderlini in Beijing and Zhou Ping in Hong Kong