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Beijing seeks to balance anger and control: analysts

20 september 2012, 11:15
0
A sudden decline in anti-Japan protests in China reflects the government's need to tread carefully between harnessing nationalist zeal and letting popular fury spiral out of control, AFP reports citing analysts.

Public anger at China's historic rival -- inflamed when Tokyo bought islands claimed by both countries -- could turn against the ruling Communist Party if it is perceived as weak towards Japan, or over other grievances, they warn.

"The Chinese central government understands very well that nationalism can be a double-edged sword," said Joseph Cheng, a China expert at City University of Hong Kong.

"After the first initial outburst they will try to calm things down."

On Wednesday police in Beijing reopened roads around the Japanese embassy, preventing large gatherings outside it, and no protests were reported around the country except for minor demonstrations at Japan's consulate in Shanghai.

The quiet contrasted with previous days, when thousands turned out across China to assert its claim to the islands in the East China Sea known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan. Some of the protests had turned violent.

Nationwide demonstrations are rare in China and could not have occurred without official sanction, and Cheng said Beijing used the public outrage as a means to pressure Tokyo, as it has done in the past.

But citizens could turn on their own government if they felt it was acting passively on Japan or if they began airing other grievances, said Barry Sautman, a China analyst at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

What the authorities were "actually concerned about is that people will conceive of the Chinese government as not only authoritarian and corrupt but also incapable of protecting the basic interests of China", he said.

Some of the demonstrators carried portraits of Mao Zedong, the divisive leader admired by many for standing up to outside powers, and they may have felt the current government was too weak in foreign affairs, he added.

Other protest signs urged action ranging from violence to boycotting Japanese goods.

China and Japan -- the world's number two and three economies -- have substantial trade ties, and Sautman said Beijing needed to appear tough to its domestic audience while avoiding escalating the crisis.

"At most what the Chinese government can hope to achieve right now is firstly to assuage the anger of the Chinese public and second to bring about some kind of stalemate," he said.

Since tensions began mounting over the islands, Beijing has published charts of its territorial claims and said it will submit the details to the United Nations, which could escalate the legal side of the dispute.

Fourteen Chinese ships are in the area, Japan's coastguard reported, and China's Defence Minister Liang Guanglie said this week Beijing reserved the right to take "further actions" but hoped for "a peaceful and negotiated solution".

The row comes just weeks ahead of a sensitive once-in-a-decade leadership transition in China's Communist Party.

Linda Jakobson, of the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, said politicians who want China to act tougher abroad may have backed protests to pressure their rivals.

Those leaders "would like to see China take a much more staunch position internationally", she said.

The public anger they have supported was now being vented on the streets and in social media, she said, making it difficult for the government to appear in any way conciliatory -- at least for the time being.

Popular pressure was restricting Beijing's options in "how to resolve -- or at least how to manage -- the situation".

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