While Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s latest visit to Yasukuni Shrine throws up yet another obstacle on the road to better Sino-Japanese ties, Chinese leaders are troubled for another reason.

The shrine visit could trigger large demonstrations similar to the anti-Japanese protests that broke out around China last year — protests that could easily turn against the government.

“China has been trying to calm the public and avoid protests, or at least minimize” them after Koizumi’s latest visit to the shrine, said Joseph Cheng, a professor at City University of Hong Kong.

“There is an understanding that protests against Japan could easily turn into protests against the government. Spontaneous activities are seen as dangerous,” Cheng said.

Beijing strongly criticized Koizumi’s visit to Yasukuni on Tuesday, made on the Aug. 15 anniversary of the Japanese surrender, calling it a challenge to international justice that “tramples on the conscience of mankind.”

The dispute between China and Japan over Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni Shrine, which enshrines 14 Class-A war criminals, as well as some 2.5 million war dead, has been a major thorn in bilateral ties, said to be at their lowest ebb in decades.

China, which says the visits show that Japan has not atoned for its militarist past, has refused to hold top-level talks with Japan since last fall.

China harshly condemned Koizumi’s latest visit in hopes of quelling public anger that could could spark demonstrations, a Chinese scholar said.

“If the Chinese government takes a relatively soft attitude over this question, it would face strong attack from the public,” said Huang Dahui, an associate professor at Renmin University of China in Beijing.

“For China, stability is the utmost priority. It cannot let problems in Sino-Japanese relations disturb domestic stability,” Huang said.

Thus far, the government has managed to keep the lid on unauthorized public demonstrations. The only protest in Beijing took place Tuesday in front of the Japanese Embassy, where a group of about 40 protesters chanted slogans in a cordoned-off area under the watchful eyes of police.

Seven people also gathered at the Japanese Consulate in Chongqing to protest the shrine visit Tuesday, while one protester sat in front of the Japanese Consulate in Guangzhou for a short time before being taken away by police, according to Japanese Embassy officials.

The demonstrations were much smaller than the sometimes violent protests that swept Chinese cities last year, triggered by opposition to Japan’s bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.

At that time, protesters marched through Beijing, Shanghai and other cities, throwing rocks and water bottles at Japanese diplomatic and commercial targets.

But the lack of public protest now does not mean Chinese are any less upset about the shrine visits. Internet chat rooms and forums abound with critical comments.

A senior Asian diplomat in Beijing said China faces a dilemma in its relations with Japan. The government must try to improve relations, while at the same time holding nationalist passions in check by taking a tough public position against Tokyo.

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