April 13, 2005


China's fury doesn't wash, but why the froth? (Marc Erikson, 4/14/05, Asia Times)

What struck me was the well-organized nature of the demonstration. A guy in a dark brown suit (no tie, though) diligently burned a Japanese flag; once aflame, it was quickly doused by another protester prudently equipped with a fire extinguisher. Then there was the designated hitter/screamer - a fellow wielding a broom stick (which, unbeknownst to me, may have some marshal arts significance) who - carried aloft by two stout men - delivered vicious blows with both ends of the stick to the head and body of a puppet of Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi carried by a guy wearing a protective motor cycle helmet. And then there were the "riot police", accompanying the protest march more like parade marshals at New York's St Patrick's Day parade up Fifth Avenue.

We thought we'd ask some of the protesters - more like revelers, actually - what this was all about. "Whitewash," said one of them (in English) and repeated the word several times over, presumably referring to the alleged whitewash of Japanese war crimes against China in present-day textbooks. "They [the Japanese] are too arrogant; we can't take it any longer," said another. How did they know about the "whitewash"? They were told about it in their work unit. Where did the Japanese flags come from that were ceremoniously burnt? A guy handed them out when they boarded the bus that took them to the demonstration.

I can't vouch for it that the Beijing demonstrations were as contrived and carefully staged. But people picking up rocks on cue as TV cameras focused on them and making quite a show of hurling them at the windows of the Japanese Embassy while "riot police" looked the other way strongly suggest it - and suggest the same organizers of the spontaneous anti-Japanese outpouring.

Sunday noon, Asia Times Online's Chinese-language sister publication (along with most or all Chinese media outlets) received an instruction from the Communist Party's central publicity department (via provincial propaganda units) to black out completely any and all reports of the protest rallies. Publications staff were, however, permitted to join the demonstrations if they saw fit.

The obvious question is, why was all this cooked up, for what purpose, and why now? There are no convincing answers, and it's in the nature of such contrivances that the originators won't talk. One thing, though, is quite certain: the Chinese claim (at vice foreign minister's level) that Japan is to blame for the unrest is absurd. Sure, Koizumi has insisted on visiting Yasukuni Shrine (war memorial were the remains of several convicted and executed Japanese war criminals are interred) every year. Sure, the textbooks are an issue. And, yes, the Japanese are not the most repentant of souls when it comes to their actions in World War II.

But after seeing what I saw in Shenzhen, I know that the Chinese government and/or Communist Party got this thing going and kept it going. Students might do this sort of thing on their own. They certainly did at Tiananmen in 1989. From the looks of it (the TV pictures), students were involved in the Beijing demonstrations. But in Shenzhen there are no students. It's a special economic zone chock full of contract workers from all over China, working in factories or - per chance - in brothels. And don't tell me this is an arrogant "elitist" view and that factory workers are as capable of being indignant about the historical wrongs done to the nation as university students!

The questions remain: why and why now?

To be systematic about it, there seem to be three possibilities: 1) the government wants to divert attention from pressing domestic problems; 2) Communist Party factional issues are fought out in a strange arena; 3) Beijing wants leverage to stoke up nationalist fervor for international gain. Neither 1) nor 2) can be entirely ruled out.

Has there ever been a dictatorship that didn't think it could manipulate social unrest?

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 13, 2005 12:00 AM

This could also just be Chinese street theater.

After all, what were the parades and denunciations during the Cultural Revolution? Participatory politics? Right.....

Posted by: ratbert at April 13, 2005 1:51 PM