Chinese protest against Japan becomes unruly

March ends in vandalism, rock-throwing incidents

April 10, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BEIJING - Mass demonstrations here against Japan turned unruly late yesterday afternoon, with scattered vandalism and confrontations with the riot police intensifying what began as a legal and generally peaceful student-led protest.

Several hundred protesters tried to storm the residence of the Japanese ambassador in Beijing, hurling bottles and rocks into the walled compound before riot police broke up the confrontation, witnesses said.

Crowds defaced billboards advertising Japanese electronics, shattered windows at a branch office of the Bank of Tokyo Mitsubishi, and threw rocks into a Japanese restaurant, but thousands of police and paramilitary units in full riot gear kept the violence from spreading.

The New China News Agency estimated that 10,000 demonstrators joined a march calling for a boycott of Japanese goods in Beijing's high-tech and university district yesterday, making it one of the largest protest events authorized by the Chinese government in years.

Subsequent gatherings at the Japanese ambassador's residence and the Japanese Embassy appeared to have been organized without official approval and were considerably more tense, with the police closing off many roads and busing in emergency reinforcements to maintain order.

The violence prompted an official protest in Tokyo by Japan's vice foreign minister, Shotaro Yachi, who asked the Chinese minister to Japan, Cheng Yonghua, to strengthen security, Reuters reported, citing the Kyodo news agency.

Resentment against Japan runs deep in Chinese society, with an overwhelming majority expressing the view that Japan has not fully atoned for its World War II-era aggression against China. Even minor disputes can provoke mass discontent, especially when the government sends signals, as it has in recent days, that it will allow some public political expression.

"Our generation believes that China must stand up for its rights and stop being soft on Japan," said Li Jiangchuan, a college student who joined the march. "Japan should stop lying about history and tell the truth."

The Communist leadership, which enforces a strict code of social stability, almost never gives permission for protesters to march on the streets of the capital. A widening wealth gap, land seizures, corruption and other issues cause regular disturbances around the country, but the police usually move quickly to disperse participants and arrest organizers.

But relations between China and Japan, Asia's two leading powers, have sharply deteriorated in recent months, at least temporarily easing Beijing's vigilance against grass-roots political activity.

In recent weeks, the two nations have taken steps to secure their rival claims to a string of tiny islands in the East China Sea and the reserves of natural gas in the seabed below.

China denounced new Japanese history textbooks that it maintains whitewash Japan's massacre of Chinese civilians during its long occupation of China in the 1930s and 1940s. It also lashed out at Japan in February for pledging to join the United States in defending Taiwan if China were to attack the island, which it claims as its sovereign territory.

Japan has accused China of distorting history and fanning the flames of xenophobia at home. Tokyo has also criticized China's rapid military buildup, which it claims is unnecessary for a nation that pledges to maintain peaceful relations with its neighbors.

In addition, China recently dealt a peremptory blow to expanding the United Nations Security Council. An effort in China to rally public opinion against Japan began last month, as word spread that the United Nations was prepared to consider proposals to make Japan a permanent member of the council this year.

The movement gained strength among university students in Beijing, thousands of whom turned out to march yesterday morning. Some carried signs with Japanese brands like Asahi and Sony crossed out. One group surrounded a Toyota car and kicked its fenders before the police dispersed protesters and allowed the car to pass.

China's leadership is viewed as having little to gain by allowing protests to pick up too much steam, with even some veteran organizers saying they accepted the need to tone things down.

"It's only natural to put some controls on at this point," said Tong Zeng, a longtime anti-Japan campaigner. "People have made their point."

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