BEIJING – After softening its stance on public protests targeting Japan over the past year, Beijing is once again cracking down on demonstrations.
A year ago this month, there was a significant event in front of the Japanese Embassy in Beijing.
Six Chinese citizens gathered outside the embassy to demand that Japan compensate victims of the fatal August 2003 discovery of World War II-era chemical weapons in Qiqihar.
They had not applied for police permission, but police allowed them to protest for 45 minutes, during which passersby stopped to ask questions and to express support.
Since that time, groups of between three and 50 people — galvanized by information posted on the Internet — have continued to congregate at the embassy gates whenever Sino-Japanese issues flare up, such as Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine on Jan. 1.
But at the Japanese Embassy demonstration last Saturday — marking the 73rd anniversary of the Imperial Japanese Army’s invasion of northeastern China — police cordoned off the block for 20 authorized protesters, told the media where to stand and asked everyone to leave after 15 minutes.
It was a sign that the state’s attitude toward protests against Japan has begun to harden.
The Internet site www.1931-9-18.org which inspired people to protest, was shut down Aug. 30 over an online signature drive against six Japanese firms that won a 100 billion yen contract for a high-speed railway.
Chinese authorities have also scuttled a number of protests against Japan and limited the scale of others, after the Japanese Embassy protested the burning of the Japanese flag during four days of demonstrations in late March over the detention in Okinawa of seven Chinese for landing on the disputed Senkaku Islands.
“I don’t know what the government thinks, but the atmosphere has not been good; lots of bad things have happened, so the government might want to control this mood,” said Li Hanmei, an international relations professor at Peking University.
A Japanese Embassy spokesman said Japan did not ask China to stop anti-Japanese expression by Chinese citizens. He also could not say whether the embassy felt the recent curbs had improved bilateral relations.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan said last week that he did “not quite agree” that state policy on public expression had changed. He said Sino-Japanese relations were improving.
“Whether it’s contact between peoples or contact between governments, it should be said that both have obtained persistent progress,” Kong said at a news briefing.
Many Chinese, who learn through state-controlled media and school textbooks about China’s suffering under Japan during World War II, say they “hate” modern Japan, and recent incidents involving the two countries have only exacerbated their antipathy.
Kong said he had not heard of any incidents in which citizens were stopped from speaking out against Japan.
Activists say that in the first week of July, police detained three motorcyclist in Beijing for organizing a demonstration tied to China’s claim to the Senkakus.
On July 18, authorities in Fujian Province forced 10 people to abandon a boat they had rented for another Senkaku landing attempt.
On Aug. 7, police set up a blockade near the Japanese Embassy to stop angry soccer fans from gathering there following Japan’s 3-1 Asian Cup victory over China. Chinese fans at the stadium shouted anti-Japanese epithets and threw objects on the field after the loss.
This month, the National People’s Congress and the State Council Legal Office declined to participate in or openly support protest events held on the Sept. 18 anniversary of the 1931 invasion of China by Japan.
A key activist and an organizer of Saturday’s event, author and businessman Tong Zeng of the Patriots Alliance Network, said he saw little “control” at the Sept. 18 protest — but acknowledged that there was an increased police presence.
He said police had insisted that the demonstrators obey the law and that they ensured people’s safety.
People in 100 cities expressed their support for the Sept. 18 demonstrations by honking their horns. No one tried to stop them, Tong said.
“There are some people who don’t have approval from the police,” he said. “But when it comes to Japan, this kind of pressure is very common.”
Zhang Lili, an instructor at the Foreign Affairs College of Beijing, said that the government has not been stopping public expression to please Japan but to make sure that people are obeying the law.
The motorcycle riders may have lacked permits, Zhang said, and the Web site may have been shut down because it lacked full legal authority to operate. He said honking horns was legal.
“If it’s not legal, then it’s overkill,” he said.