Socialist Worker

What lies behind the anti-Japanese protests in China?

Socialist Worker looks at the discontent that has spread across the world’s most populous country.

Issue No. 1949

A family in Chungking, China, sit amid the ruins of their home, destroyed by Japanese forces in 1937

A family in Chungking, China, sit amid the ruins of their home, destroyed by Japanese forces in 1937


China has witnessed three weekends of anti-Japanese protests. Small protests began at the start of April. Then on Saturday 9 April thousands of protesters, mainly university students, marched through the capital Beijing and smashed windows at the Japanese embassy.

The next day 10,000 demonstrated at the Japanese consulate in the city of Guangzhou. Some 10,000 protested at a Japanese owned supermarket in nearby Shenzhen.

The following weekend saw three marches, each thousands strong, converge on the Japanese consulate in Shanghai. Protests also took place in other cities.

The demonstrations have been sparked by anger at a new history textbook in Japan that glosses over atrocities committed by Japanese forces in the 1930s and 1940s, as Charlie Hore explains below.

But they also reflect growing rivalry between the two east Asian powers as Sally Bernstein’s analysis on this page shows.

The authorities have so far had a permissive attitude towards the marches. The state has in the past promoted nationalist sentiment to apply pressure on Japan, and to distract from discontent at home.

Police in Beijing shepherded students through the streets during the 9 April protests. Mr Sun, who participated in the march, said, “It was partly a real protest and partly a political show.”

The day before the Shanghai protest, millions of mobile phones in the city received a text message from the municipal security office calling on them to “show their love for their country in a law-abiding way”.

Zhu Xueqin, a historian at Shanghai University, said, “I watched the police cars escorting the demonstrators and felt this all looked familiar, like an official event in the Cultural Revolution, but those drew bigger crowds and were more emotional.”

The 1966 Cultural Revolution was begun by a section of the Communist Party leadership to shore up their position in the party.

The regime has not thrown itself behind the recent wave of protests to the same extent. An official statement last week called on protesters to stop marching so that talks with Japan could go ahead.

But, as in 1966, even limited, state sanctioned protests run the risk of spilling over into a wider movement. This could threaten burgeoning trade with Japan—worth £89 billion a year. It could also tap into wider discontent and destabilise Chinese society.

During the Shanghai march, one 23 year old demonstrator claimed that the marchers were not simply motivated by opposition to Japan. “People are taking part in this march because they aren’t allowed to protest about anything else,” he told reporters.

There are signs of growing resistance in China. A riot broke out in the eastern village of Huankantou on 12 April following the police killing of two elderly women taking part in a protest against factory pollution.

Villagers fought off over 1,000 riot police, hospitalising 30. Official figures show a 15 percent rise in protests last year, involving over three million participants.

Faced with this the ruling party has a difficult balancing act. On 14 April a senior Communist Party official said that while he welcomed the anti-Japanese protests, “there is a state of concern, even panic, about whether this could get out of hand”.


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