Public Anger May Singe Beijing

Anti-Japan protests in China, aided by the Net and cell phones, could get out of control and create trouble for the country's leaders

By Joyce Barnathan

For many Chinese, May 4 is a day full of significance. On that date in 1919, students in China launched a massive public protest after the terms of the Versailles Treaty were announced. The Treaty gave Japan territorial and other rights in the German-occupied parts of China. It was an upheaval stoked by intense nationalism. The Chinese recognized that they had to redefine themselves and modernize their government so they could stand up to the West and Japan.

May 4 could also be extremely eventful this year as well, as Chinese students are urging their brethren to show up for public demonstrations on that day in Beijing's Tiananmen Square and in other major Chinese cities. Chain e-mails are asking people to spread the word and focus their anger, once again, on Japan.


  A recent series of events is feeding the fire: A Japanese bid to gain a permanent seat on a revamped U.N. Security Council, a territorial dispute between Tokyo and Beijing over oil drilling rights, and newly approved Japanese textbooks that underplay the war atrocities Japan inflicted on the Chinese.

Chinese student protestors now have more tools at their disposal than at any time in the past. They're wealthier and more sophisticated, often with access to computers and the Internet, not to mention cell phones and text messaging. And today's technology allows them to work anonymously. Apparently, no one, including authorities, knows who is organizing the May 4 protest.

To fathom the discontent, however, you need look no further than all the anti-Japanese Web sites popping up in cyberspace. I checked out (its name in Chinese is less searing: Anti-Japan Pioneer), which has compiled information on Japanese aggressions and transgressions from the Chinese point of view. The site flashes black and white photos of Japan's brutal occupation in World War II, including gruesome pictures of mass graves, shootings, and beheadings. It even provides news clips of natural disasters, such as earthquakes and other unfortunate events in Japan, as a way to celebrate the enemy's hardships.


  Last weekend, an emergency meeting between the foreign ministers of both countries failed to cool down the diplomatic temperature: An estimated 20,000 protestors took to the streets in Shanghai.

Whenever the demonstrations do take place, Beijing must hope they're peaceful and conclude quickly. The Tiananmen protests in 1989, which went on far longer than anyone expected, aren't a cherished memory for China's leadership. True, these were directed at government corruption, but any large gathering potentially could become dangerous, particularly if the demonstration gets out of control and the government feels the need to break it up.

Beijing's views on Japan actually dovetail with the outpourings of public opinion. Most Chinese have been strongly influenced by years of anti-Japanese propaganda in the country's media. But the upcoming protests could signal trouble for Chinese leaders. A propaganda attack against an enemy today may become a challenge to the leaders' own status tomorrow. China has a history of students redirecting their anger at the government when they feel it isn't taking action on issues they're passionate about.

Armed with the Internet and text messaging, protestors are now able to organize and mobilize more freely. On top of that, Chinese students today are more sophisticated than ever, with increased access to information from outside the country. They want to think for themselves -- and they want their voices to be heard, just as they were on May 4, 1919.

Barnathan is an assistant managing editor for BusinessWeek in New York

Edited by Bruce Nussbaum

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