SHENZHEN, CHINA – Sunday marks the one-year anniversary of the start of anti-Japanese protests that flared in many parts of China over the ownership of the Senkaku Islands, amid lingering Chinese frustration among the socially vulnerable over widening gaps between the rich and poor.
On Aug. 18, 2012, hundreds of people gathered in the central city of Xian and other places to protest Japan’s arrest of Chinese activists who landed on one of the uninhabited Japan-held islets in the East China Sea. China also claims the chain, which it calls Diaoyu.
The day saw the beginning of a series of such protests, which grew even more violent after the Japanese government purchased a significant part of the Senkakus from a private Saitama owner on Sept. 11, effectively nationalizing the entire chain.
Bilateral relations have remained frosty ever since because the islets, administrated by Japan for more than 100 years before last September’s purchase, have been claimed by China since the 1970s after a U.N. survey indicated there may be potentially rich petroleum reserves in the vicinity.
“I took part in one of the demonstrations because I felt that the Japanese government’s attitude was high-handed,” said a 29-year-old worker in the southern city of Shenzhen, who joined the protests. “I thought that I also need to let out my voice.”
Some of the demonstrations led to arson, looting and vandalism against Japanese factories, stores and restaurants operating in China.
The worker, however, said: “Destructive actions were taken by only some people. The demonstrations were mostly peaceful and staged for patriotic reasons.”
But a 23-year-old man in Shenzhen who did not take part in any of the protests had a different view, saying some people “just wanted to make a lot of noise. I don’t know whether they were really for anti-Japan purposes.”
Shenzhen, near Hong Kong, has received a huge influx of workers from rural areas amid its rapid growth since a special economic zone was set up in 1980.
“The rich are going to get richer, but a person like me who is from a poor farming village just needs to work hard every day,” said a 37-year-old woman who moved to the city more than a decade ago.
It is widely believed the reason behind the demonstrations — which were held largely with the tacit approval of Chinese authorities and developed into the largest of their kind since Tokyo and Beijing normalized diplomatic ties in 1972 — is not necessarily that many of those who jumped on the bandwagon are well aware of the history of the islands or are strongly anti-Japanese.
Rather, they are thought to have participated in the demonstrations to vent their frustration over widening income disparities.
As evidence of this, last year’s protests, which came at a politically sensitive time months ahead of China’s once-in-a-decade leadership change, in some cities turned into movements criticizing such issues as the Communist Party’s one-party rule and corruption in the bureaucracy.
There were no major protests on China’s streets after three ministers in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet on Thursday visited Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, where convicted and accused Japanese Class-A war criminals are honored along with the nation’s millions of war dead, on the 68th anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II.
But that does not assure there will be none in the near future, as Asia’s two biggest economies are still engaged in a bitter dispute over the Senkakus, with ships from both countries playing cat-and-mouse games around them.
“I will, of course, be part of a demonstration if there is one. Young people should stand up for China’s sovereignty,” said a 24-year-old man selling stationery items in Shenzhen.
But a 31-year-old man said, “The real issue here is not whether we want to take part (in anti-Japan protests) but whether the government allows them.”