Barren Islands Bring China to a Boil

On Sunday morning, thousands of people in at least six major Chinese cities took to the streets to engage in anti-Japanese protests that became, in some cases, riots.

The official target of the protests was Japan's claim to a chain of islands in the East China Sea to which China also alleges ownership. The less official, but no less important, target was the Chinese Communist Party -- and its ability to serve as a steward of China’s national interests. With many Chinese voicing doubts about whether the Party is capable of protecting the disputed islands, China’s foreign policy is facing a crisis of legitimacy.

The chain of uninhabited islands 90 miles northeast of Taiwan has been the center of sovereignty disputes for decades. Known in China as the Diaoyu and in Japan as the Senkaku, the eight islands are subject both to historical claims and to a contemporary thirst for large oil and gas reserves presumed to be beneath the land.

Tensions have been rising for years, and in April escalated after Tokyo’s far-right governor announced that the municipality was seeking to buy some of the chain from a private investor (plans later confirmed by Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda). Early this month, the situation built to a crisis with news that a group of Japanese politicians planned to land on one of the islands on Aug. 19 to commemorate a World War II-era shipwreck that happened there.

The planned landing infuriated Chinese activists in Hong Kong, Taiwan and the mainland, more than a dozen of whom decided to respond with their own landing last week. On Wednesday, seven came ashore on one of the islands (the others remained on a boat) and planted Chinese and Taiwanese flags on the empty rocks. Shortly after, Japanese authorities arrested the group, paraded them in handcuffs before the news media and then deported them. In China, the images were viewed as a humiliation and ratcheted up the tensions even further.

China’s microbloggers paid much attention to the fact that this audacious stunt was launched from Hong Kong, by Hong Kong citizens, and not by mainlanders with the support of the People’s Liberation Army. The simple but awkward explanation floating around China’s microblogs is that mainland China's repressive political controls prevent Chinese citizens from individually, and collectively, pursuing the national interest.

In contrast, Hong Kong’s open society ensures a responsive public sector and citizens capable of pursuing the public’s interest. On Thursday, Zhao Chu, a Shanghai-based military affairs expert with 197,000 followers on Sina Weibo, China’s most popular microblog, tweeted one of the more eloquent versions of this sentiment:

In a place where patriotism and protest require approval, it’s all but inevitable that the pursuit of the national interest will be impaired … this is a lesson that the Hong Kong people have taught the mainland people. So how can we protect the national interest, and the best interest of the community? We need the freedom of association, speech and press. Only a free man can keep his country in his heart.

Also on Thursday, Lei Yi, a well-known contemporary historian in Beijing, echoed Zhao’s sentiment and took it a step further with a Sina Weibo tweet that directly tied the ability to defend Chinese sovereignty to a more liberated national condition:

Why was it Hong Kong people who landed on the Diaoyu Islands? There are so many mainland people passionate about this, so why aren’t they the ones to do it? It seems that only when mainland people win the same rights to act and protect their land as Hong Kong people that they will be able to defend the Diaoyu Islands.

Of those rights, few are more sensitive than the right to roam the Internet as one pleases, without government interference. As many commentators in China have noted in the wake of the Diaoyu landing, Hong Kong netizens have that right, including the ability to use foreign social networking sites such as Facebook. Take, for example, this Sina Weibo tweet from a Chinese netizen abroad:

The Hong Kong activist Yang Kuang used Facebook to post that he was at the Diaoyu Islands. This gave me a sudden feeling of disappointment. By logging into Facebook there, he proves that the Diaoyu Islands are not our territory.

For years, China has publicly promoted its legal and historical claim to the islands against alleged Japanese encroachment. But in the eyes and ears of China’s energized masses, these niceties don’t seem to have accomplished much. On Saturday, Wu Bin, a well-known freelance columnist in Guangzhou, used the Ten Cent microblog to express his displeasure at what he (correctly) believed would be a diplomatic Chinese government response to increasing news about the landing the Japanese had planned:

It’s simple for the government to show that the Diaoyu belongs to us: just deal with a man as he deals with you! When the Hong Kong people went there they were captured by the Japanese, and thus Japan declared its sovereignty by its actions. Now the Japanese are going to land on the Diaoyu Islands. If you have the guts you can prove your sovereignty by handcuffing them, transporting them to police stations … and then repatriating them! But I’m afraid that you don’t have the guts! If you don’t dare to do so, please shut up and stop always mumbling about Diaoyu Islands and blah blah blah since ancient time. So annoying.

Previously, there was little evidence that popular sentiment was influencing Chinese policy. But late last week, amid rumors of impending protests, policymakers at the highest levels clearly felt the need to make some preemptive attempts at calming the situation. Of these responses, none was more remarkable than the one published in the Global Times newspaper, a state-owned offshoot of People’s Daily, the official Communist Party mouthpiece and a longtime voice of aggressive nationalism. The unsigned Saturday editorial suggests that somebody at a high level is beginning to see the benefits of moderating the saber-rattling, and keeping the PLA out of the tensions for the foreseeable future:

The Chinese public is wondering why the Diaoyu Islands, a part of China's territory, is occupied by Japan and why the PLA doesn't send navy ships to escort activists. The Chinese government is thought of as being "weak" by some.

While there is no open official support for the activists landing on Diaoyu, that doesn't mean they are acting on their own. Their safe trip to Diaoyu, and eventual safe return, are both the result of China's national strength.

Meanwhile, Chinese need to be clear that China cannot retrieve the islands now. This could mean a large-scale war, which is not in China's interests.

As telling as the Global Times editorial was, the starkest indication of the government’s heightened attention to populist agitation was increased controls on online discussion of the Diaoyu crisis. For example, news that the group of Japanese politicians was scheduled to land on one of the islands was widely disseminated on Chinese microblogs, but the comment sections associated with those news-related tweets were shut down in several notable cases. This is a rare occurrence that tends to be implemented only during the most politically sensitive events.

It was a telling restriction, indicating just how nervous the authorities were about stirring up populist anger amidst rumors that protests were being organized for the weekend. But there was little they could do: By 9 a.m. Sunday, the protests were well underway, and by mid-afternoon, several had veered out of control.

(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is writing a book on the global recycling industry. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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