Commentary: Why Beijing May Be Playing With Fire

Protests against Japan could quickly find new targets closer to home

As anti-Japan demonstrations across China proliferate, Tokyo, Washington, and other world capitals have expressed concern about the vitriol being spewed by protesters. But the capital city that may have the greatest cause for fear is Beijing. Sure, the target of the demonstrators -- so far -- has been Japan. They're angry about Tokyo's apparent unwillingness to own up to its wartime past, especially in newly approved textbooks that underplay Japanese atrocities in China during World War II. The Japanese "are worse than dogs if they continue to close their eyes to the facts of history," says Zhao Li, a 23-year-old university student who took part in the Beijing demonstrations.

In China, though, the winds of protest have a funny way of shifting direction without warning. That's what happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989, when student demonstrators started out commemorating the death of former Party boss Hu Yaobang but ended up demanding democratic change. And on May 4, 1919, protests against concessions given to Japan after World War I exploded into broad demonstrations and spawned a national debate about modernizing China. As the spring wears on, there will be plenty of opportunities for students and workers to voice their complaints: On May 1 there's the international labor holiday. Three days later it's the anniversary of the May 4th Movement. And just a month after that, the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 4, 1989, will have its 16th anniversary. As a sign of just how jittery Beijing has become, the Foreign Ministry on Apr. 19 warned Chinese not to participate in "unapproved demonstrations."

There's no shortage of gripes among China's citizenry. Workers have suffered massive layoffs during the transition to a market economy. They're also feeling more assertive as a result of the new populist stance struck by President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. With Beijing pushing to educate workers about everything from overtime pay to occupational safety, laborers are becoming more demanding. According to one mainland magazine, there were 58,000 protests involving 3 million workers in 2003 -- and the true number is probably far higher. "You actually have a labor movement emerging in China today," says Robin Munro, director of research at rights organization China Labor Bulletin in Hong Kong. "That wasn't true five years ago." Even veterans of the People's Liberation Army have started demonstrating for better salaries and pensions.

There's more than just labor unrest. China's runaway economic growth has trashed the environment and left hundreds of thousands homeless. Late last year, Beijing was forced to send in troops and seal off a village in Sichuan Province when thousands demonstrated against plans to force them from their homes to make way for a dam. And in the wealthy coastal province of Zhejiang in April, thousands more overturned police cars and threw stones at officers to protest pollution from local chemical plants that had poisoned their fields and water. The problem is, cleaning up the environment or putting the brakes on projects such as the dam could slow economic growth -- which could lead to fewer jobs and more protests from angry workers.

China's leadership is playing a dangerous game. While the Chinese rightly criticize Japan for not fully recognizing the horrors of its occupation of the mainland, fanning the flames of past injustices could end up burning Beijing. The Communist Party still sees Japan as a convenient bogeyman to deflect attention from its own historical sins, such as the Great Leap Forward, when millions died of starvation, the terror of the Cultural Revolution, or the hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of students killed at Tiananmen Square. But when Chinese protesters take to the streets in the kinds of numbers that have been seen in recent weeks, it doesn't take much for many of them to remember that as angry as they may be about Japan -- or any other gripe of the moment -- they're plenty angry about the transgressions of their own government, too.

By Dexter Roberts

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