China allowed thousands of its people to take to the streets Sunday in the biggest anti-Japanese protests in seven years after Japanese activists landed on an island controlled by Tokyo but claimed by Beijing.
The protests flared in more than a dozen Chinese cities after a group of Japanese right-wing lawmakers and other nationalists landed on Uotsuri Island, the largest of a chain of islets in the East China Sea, and unfurled Japanese flags.
They emulated 14 pro-China activists who had made the same gesture during their trip last week to Uotsuri in the island chain, called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. They were arrested and deported home by the Japanese authorities.
Sunday's action by the Japanese activists, who said they wanted to commemorate the Japanese who died near the islands in World War II, drew anger in China, sparking protests—some violent—in more than 12 cities and a diplomatic representation from Beijing.
"The illegal actions of the Japanese rightists have violated China's territorial sovereignty, and senior officials from the Foreign Ministry have lodged solemn representations to the Japanese ambassador to China," Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang was quoted saying by the state news agency Xinhua.
"The Japanese side should properly handle the current issue and avoid seriously damaging the overall situation of China-Japan relations," Qin said.
Bilateral relations have been dealt their biggest blow in seven years, according to the Global Times, a nationalist-inflected newspaper owned by People’s Daily, the ruling Chinese Communist Party's mouthpiece.
The biggest demonstration, based on Xinhua's accounts, was in Jinan city in Shandong province where more than 2,000 protestors marched toward Donghuan Plaza, a city landmark, as they sang China's national anthem and held banners and national flags.
Chinese protesters march in an anti-Japanese demonstration in east China's Zhejiang province, Aug. 19, 2012. AFP
But images posted on Sina Weibo, a Chinese version of Twitter, showed larger crowds, raising the possibility that the protests were backed by the authorities, which usually are cautious about allowing public protests which could backfire against the government.
The number of protesters in the southwestern city of Chengdu, for example, appeared to be in the tens of thousands, according to photos on Sina Weibo, reports indicated.
Japan's Kyodo news agency said some 5,000 people participated in protests in Shenzhen in southern Guangdong province.
Protesters damaged Japanese restaurants and vehicles in Shenzhen and Hangzhou in east Zhejiang province, another southern province, Kyodo said.
Xinhua reported more than 1,000 protesters in Shandong's coastal city of Qingdao marching to the Consulate-General of Japan and a similar number in Taiyuan in Shanxi Province marching on Yingze Street, one of the city's main streets.
Xinhua also cited protests in other Chinese cities, including Zhengzhou, Changsha, and Guiyang.'Popular card'
Sunday's protests were the biggest anti-Japanese demonstrations since 2005, when Japan said it was planning to award gas drilling rights in disputed waters.
"They're using the popular card to put pressure on Japan," Willy Lam, a China expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told Agence France-Presse.
"The [Communist] Party leadership realizes nationalism is a double-edged sword. If they see a possibility of the protests escalating, they will give the signals to put an end to this," he said.
For decades, China and Japan, the top two Asian economic powerhouses, have been quarreling over the uninhabited chain, also known as the Tiaoyutai in Taiwan, which also lays claim to it.
Sino-Japanese tensions rose in recent months after the nationalist governor of Tokyo proposed that the Tokyo Metropolitan Government buy the isles, prompting the central government to make its own bid to purchase them instead.Parallels
The new tensions draw parallels with Beijing's disputes with Southeast Asian nations over territorial claims in the South China Sea.
China's rapid defense build-up on the back of its fast growing economy has led to concerns it could unleash its military might to stamp its territorial claims.
In an online symposium on "Safeguarding the Diaoyu Islands" held by the Global Times
on Sunday, many participants sought tough action against Japan.
"In terms of determination, China should make red lines for Japan. For example, we should not allow Japanese to land on the islands or station its army there," said Major General Luo Yuan, one of the most outspokenly hawkish generals in China.
"Meanwhile, China must have countermeasures prepared if Japan insists on doing so. We can also turn the Diaoyu Islands into a shooting range for the navy force," he said, according to the Global Times
English language website.Reported by RFA's Mandarin service. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.