BEIJING – As anti-Japanese protests continued for a third day in a row here, government censors imposed a news blackout on coverage of protests signaling that Beijing was trying to contain further damage to already strained Sino-Japanese relations.
None of the nation’s thousands of newspapers, television stations, and news Web sites carried any details of the protests that took the capital by storm on Saturday. On Sunday, hundreds of full-gear riot police blocked access to the diplomatic quarter in downtown Beijing but avoided direct confrontation with protesters.
In sharp contrast with the full blast of anti-Japanese propaganda few weeks ago when national media covered extensively China’s grassroots campaign to block Japan’s bid for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, this time they avoided any mention of the riots that had spread over China.
In a country where little public expression of political sentiment is tolerated, the magnitude and continuity of anti-Japan marches were seen by many as indication of real antipathy at the top toward Japan’s emerging military profile in the region and its ambitions to join the UN Security Council.
But with strong interest in maintaining the economic integration between the two countries, Beijing appears unprepared, for the time being, to exchange icy diplomatic relations for direct conflict.
The news blackout came as Japan’s Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi protested Monday against the damage inflicted by the riots and warned that relations between the two Asian powers have hit a new low.
"It is very regrettable. This kind of thing must not be allowed to happen," Koizumi said of the damage caused by the protesters. "China is responsible for the safety of Japanese people who are working in China. I would like them to be well aware of this."
Koizumi’s top spokesman said Monday Tokyo was seriously concerned by the demonstrations. "We are deeply troubled by the recent developments," Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda said. "We are next-door neighbors and our diplomatic relations are extremely important. We should not let misunderstandings grow."
In recent weeks, the two countries have crossed swords on political and economic issues such as Tokyo’s decision to discontinue economic aid to Beijing, competition for energy supplies, and China’s grassroots opposition toward Japan’s bid to for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.
Chinese anger focuses on the visits of Koizumi and other Japanese leaders to the Yasukuni shrine, where war criminals are commemorated alongside Japan’s war dead. China says this proves Japan has not truly repented for its militarist World War II past. Beijing refuses to hold bilateral summits with Koizumi until he stops the pilgrimages.
But Japan says China has wantonly downplayed generous packages of aid it has received from Japan some 3 trillion yen ($27 billion U.S.) since 1980, and is stoking anti-Japanese nationalist sentiment as ways of boosting its fading ideological authority.
Saturday’s protest was the largest Beijing had seen since 1999 when angry crowds pelted the U.S. embassy following the NATO attack on the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, during the Kosovo campaign.
Some 10,000 people, mostly students, marched across Beijing in protest against Japan’s approval of revised history textbooks that critics say whitewash Japan’s brutal wartime colonization of Asian nations. Later, some 1,000 people besieged the Japanese diplomatic compound, throwing rocks and eggs and shouting, "Japanese pigs come out" and "stop distorting history."
Sunday and Monday saw more marches in Beijing and rallies of support in the southern cities of Shenzhen and Guangzhou where protesters called for the boycott of Japanese goods and threw eggs at Japanese restaurants. In Shanghai, two Japanese students were beaten up in a bar.
A survey released Monday found that 96 percent of Chinese saw Japan’s revision of history textbooks as an "insult to the Chinese people." Ninety-seven percent of those surveyed by the Social Survey Institute of China demanded an apology from Tokyo.
"Japan is the outmost target of nationalistic sentiment in China," said Victor Yuan who runs a semi-official company conducting public surveys and marketing research in Beijing. Increasingly, he said, the outpouring of anti-Japanese sentiment could also have commercial implications.
"Our probes show that among people who had never before used Japanese goods, some 24 percent now say they would boycott Japanese products. The figure last year was only 10 percent," he said.
A trade association for Chinese chain stores called last week for a boycott of beer, coffee, cars, and other products made by Japanese companies like Asahi and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries that it claims supported the controversial textbook revision.
Some 14,000 Japanese companies are estimated to be operating in China and continuing hostilities could have chilling ramifications for bilateral ties. Economic ties so far have been the only stabilizing factor in relations across the East China Sea. In 2004 Sino-Japanese trade grew to $168 billion, a 26 percent jump from a year earlier.
Many in Beijing expressed anger at the news blackout of the anti-Japanese protests.
"Our government is too weak," grumbled Yang Xiaodong, a 40-something Beijinger who described himself as self-employed. "They should keep the media blasting for a week, or even for two weeks until everybody in China and the whole world takes notice."
But Chinese leaders may fear, too, that continuous anti-Japan demonstrations could trigger protests about broader social grievances, speculated a university professor who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"Just two months ago, Chinese communist leaders refused to let people come out and publicly commemorate the late Zhao Ziyang [the purged party leader who sympathized with the 1989 Tiananmen student demonstrators]. They know that wound is still fresh and could easily open," the professor said. "They don’t want protests to turn against them."