The recent wave of anti-Japanese demonstrations in China raises questions about Beijing’s will to stabilize the situation. At the beginning of this month, demonstrators went on a rampage in Sichuan and Shenzhen in southern China, smashing windows of a Japanese supermarket and committing other acts of vandalism. Last weekend, protests spread to Beijing, Guangzhou and other cities.

In Beijing more than 10,000 people demonstrated, some of them hurling rocks at the Japanese Embassy and storming a Japanese restaurant. A huge anti-Japanese march in Beijing — which took place despite an earlier Communist Party directive calling for calm — indicated that the government and party might be loosening their grip on street protests. If the situation continues unabated, Beijing’s ability to maintain law and order might be called into question.

Two immediate reasons are given for the mass protests. One is Japan’s bid to gain a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. The other is Tokyo’s approval of history textbooks that many Chinese think misrepresent or sugarcoat some of Japan’s wartime actions in Asia.

Yet, while demanding a boycott of Japanese products and a severance of diplomatic ties, many demonstrators — including women and children — appeared as if they were venting their daily grievances as well.

Significantly, the Internet played a potent role in encouraging the spread of the protests. It all started, the story goes, when someone posted erroneous information that a Japanese beer producer had endorsed a “revisionist” history textbook. Then an anti-Japanese group claiming Chinese sovereignty over the disputed Senkaku (Diaoyu in Chinese) Islands launched an online signature campaign against the Japanese bid for a permanent Security Council seat.

How times change. China’s economy has grown by leaps and bounds since 1989, when Beijing mobilized tanks to crash a prodemocracy student movement in Tiananmen Square. Now, to the extent that they do not confront the government, Chinese are relatively free to express their views on the Net. Beijing appears tolerant about “anti-Japanese speech,” presumably as a way of diverting public attention from domestic problems.

During the rock-throwing demonstration in front of the Japanese Embassy, security police watched from the sidelines. In a meeting with Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura Sunday, Chinese Ambassador Wang Yi, while condemning vandalism, spoke rather favorably of the demonstrations. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman went a step further and said Beijing had no responsibility for the incidents.

Not surprisingly, there is suspicion here that Chinese authorities were pulling strings behind the demonstrations. As Japanese businessmen in China point out, however, a small number of protesters ran wild, and most Chinese know there is no sense in boycotting Japanese goods made in their own country. Mob violence, whatever its motives, should not be condoned.

At the moment, it is unclear whether anti-Japanese protests will morph into wider antigovernment demonstrations. This remains a possibility, though, given the “farmers’ rebellions” that have roiled the country the past few years — grassroots protests stemming from problems spawned by China’s rapid shift to a market economy, such as corruption and a growing income gap between the rich and poor. Chinese society would plunge into chaos should such protests spread through the country.

Now is a trying moment for Chinese leaders, particularly President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. If they crack down on demonstrations, they will stoke popular anger. But if they do not act, their leadership and reputation will be questioned. Moreover, inaction will likely prompt foreign businesses, not just Japanese ones, to have second thoughts about investing in China.

For the Japanese government, this is also a time to strengthen efforts to improve dialogue with Beijing. The Hu administration appears willing to mend fences. Last month, Premier Wen put forward a three-point proposal for resuming reciprocal visits at the summit level, putting the issue of history — Beijing’s longtime diplomatic card toward Japan — at the bottom of the list. Foreign Minister Machimura is scheduled to visit China on Sunday.

The test for Beijing is how to handle relations with Japan while maintaining domestic stability. The fall in January 1987 of the reformist General Secretary Hu Yaobang was ascribed not only to his failure to suppress the democratic movement, but also to his accommodating stance toward Japan. The dilemma for Beijing was, and probably still is, that a too-conciliatory policy toward Japan may prove self-defeating. It is a difficulty that Japanese leaders would do well to remember.

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