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Yi Lu

As Recriminations Over Anti-Japanese Protests Mount, Deep Divisions in China Emerge

China appeared united in its response to Japan's recent purchase of the Diaoyu, but what lay beneath the surface? Via Gucheng.com

The protest, argued all those engaged, was a spectacle of solidarity, and it appeared so at first glance: Beginning September 16, anti-Japanese grievances that had been simmering for months over the Diaoyu Islands, called the Senkaku in Japanese, overflowed into Chinese streets, engulfing more than a dozen cities in an arc along the country’s eastern seaboard. Angry mobs of young men and women confronted armies of police, hurling eggs, rocks, and bottles at Japanese establishments that were, by and large, owned by Chinese nationals. Some looted. “Defend the Diaoyu Islands to the death,” chanted the crowd, and together they surged.

Yet amid all the calls to remain steadfast and united, there were traces of division that most cameras failed to capture. As reckonings of the protests rolled in, self-criticism on China’s micro-blogs quickly descended into sharp verbal attacks based on regional rivalries and class resentment. Beneath a cocoon of nationalistic solidarity, the anti-Japanese movements last week revealed how much potential for fragmentation and disarray exists within modern Chinese society. 

The center of contention was Guangzhou, China’s third largest city, where protesters attacked the city’s landmark Garden Hotel on September 16. The Japanese consulate, located inside, was unscathed. “It pains me to learn that the mob assaulted the Garden Hotel!” wrote @老莫_且将流年换不悔, addressing the protesters directly in his comment via Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter. “You only know that the Japanese consulate is inside, but don’t you know that the very name of the Hotel was hand-written by [former Chinese leader] Deng Xiaoping? Don’t you know that there are other consulates inside? Don’t you know that this place has long been the pride of Guangzhou? Today, Garden Hotel is a barometer of our civility.”{{1}}[[1]]还是有人冲撞了花园酒店,痛心!你们只知道日本领事馆在内,但你们知不知,酒店店名是邓小平手书?知不知,奠基石上是杨尚昆的名字?知不知,酒店还有其他领事馆的机构?知不知,它一直是广州人的骄傲之一?今天,花园酒店将成为检验广州的一条标杆。理性务实,文明有礼的广州,希望你不要令我们失望![[1]]

Torrents of blame, often laced with hostility toward any outsiders, soon emerged among Guangzhou netizens, who began to see the day in protest more as a defense of their hometown than of the Senkaku Islands. “Among the crowd, those who shouted to defend the Diaoyu Islands to the death were mostly non-locals who spoke Mandarin; those who marched to defend public order were mostly local students who spoke Cantonese,” observed @羊城网小劳. “And for those who sold Chinese flags along the way, they just wanted to make a quick buck out of this mess.”{{2}}[[2]]人群之中,举着“宁愿大陆不长草,也要攻下钓鱼岛”一类标语并高声喊口号的,大多数是说普通话的外地人;举着“理性爱国,勿害同胞”一类标语静静跟着的大多是说粤语的本地学生;拿着相机或手机围观拍摄的大多是附近上班或途径的行人;拿着一大堆五星红旗的,是趁机想做生意的……[[2]]

Such fears of outsiders reverberated well beyond Guangzhou. Swelled by strong local pride, netizens across major Chinese cities grappled consciously with the anxiety of losing ownership of neighborhoods that, the protests had suddenly rendered dangerous. “Be careful if you speak Suzhou dialect in Suzhou, or you’ll be taken as a Japanese and the migrant workers will give you a nice beating,” mocked @mavis-m宝, pointing to tonal similarities between the two tongues. “I don’t want to be a bigot discriminating against people based on their regions, but in light of the recent disturbances, I am now really worried about my hometown. All those with ill intentions, get lost!” 

“Is there a ‘Defend Suzhou’ movement?” @mavis-m宝 later asked. “I’ll sign up.”{{3}}[[3]]在苏州的观前说苏州话请当心,你很有可能被周围的外来务工人员当成小日本给揍一顿。其实真的不想说什么地域歧视的话,但是最近在苏州发生的很多事情,不得不让我为自己的家乡担忧,苏州本是一个宁静小城,请那些仇富仇社会的闲杂人等滚出去吧,不要来侮辱这个城市,有保苏运动吗?我参加![[3]]

Such nativist comments, appearing often in conjunction with photos to name and shame rioters, kindled an outburst of counter-criticism. Many netizens defending the protesters argued that accusations based on innuendo only solidified regional prejudices and promoted insularity. They also argued that these comments unfairly targeted the protesters’ sense of patriotism, which many hold close as a unifying theme. Yet for staunch natives who hold their regional pride even dearer than their national pride, such moral censure represented a kind of bad faith. 

“To those who claim that Guangzhouers are rioters, didn’t you see that there was actually no one from Guangzhou in the mob?” wrote @Ciceroo, a Guangzhouer, calling into question whether anyone protesting in Guangzhou could be legitimately called a “Guangzhouer.” “Don’t you realize that by accusing us, you are the real cause of fragmentation in China? You fake patriots.”{{4}}[[4]]说广州是被“捞头”搞乱的人,难道你们就调查过里面没有一个是广州人?有没有想过你们才是在搞地域化、人种化,搞分裂,这才是令中国内乱的人,彻头彻尾的爱国贼。[[4]]

Geographic origins are not the only force that threatens to divide a country that seemed so united just last week. Many netizens have begun to argue that the protests, which resulted in destruction of Japanese property and accounts of widespread looting, sprang from the bottom half of China’s population, mainly working-class citizens who used the day to express their anti-elitism and class resentment.

The flags were all the same, but not the feelings. Via takungpao.com

“I just saw the news story about a man in Xi’an who owned a Japanese car and got hit in the head, and it tore me apart,” wrote @飞远的家雀儿.  “This reminds me of all the innocent victims during the Cultural Revolution. Those who cannot afford their own cars smashed those of others, all in the name of patriotism! Are these people really human? How can they ever get rich like this? You have to work hard to move up in this world, and hating the rich does not help anything!”{{5}}[[5]]刚在新闻里看到西安日系车主被砸的新闻,心里一阵难过。让人想到文化大革命时期那些无辜受冤的人。别有用心的恶人借着"爱国"的名义却分明发泄着自己的私欲,砸别人车的人大多是受穷买不起的人!话说回来,这样的人算人吗?而这样的人又怎么可能变富?富裕要靠自己奋斗,不是叫嚣仇富可以解决问题的![[5]]

Significantly, many of the most shocking images of internecine hate available on Weibo involved cars—mostly Japanese models—scratched, damaged, and in some cases, overturned. As a sign of both physical and social mobility, a car in China embodies the aspirations of an emerging middle-class, whose ranks most migrant workers seek to join. In this regard, images of wrecked cars offered a glimpse into an ingrained sense of injustice and unfairness that helped draw youth mobs to violence.

“Why were thousands of Hong Kongers able to organize a protest in perfect discipline, while we mainlanders couldn’t even maintain the most basic order?” asked @许纪霖. “Crowds were mobilized and only practiced sheer wanton vandalism; they had no sense of personal reckoning. As a result, national conflicts turned into class conflicts based on hatred of the rich.”

“There is only one key to curb reactionary populism,” he finally said. “Create an autonomous civil society.”{{6}}[[6]]为何香港几十万人shangjie秩序井然,而大陆一场shiwei就如此不堪?除了市民素质差距之外,乃是香港有发达的公民团体,有表达,更有责任感。而我们这里,被匆忙动员起来的乌合之众各怀心思,尽情发泄,无须担当,使民族矛盾转化为仇富的阶级矛盾。避免群众运动的暴力化,只有一途:建立自主性公民社会。[[6]]

Hope for a freer China was voiced online, but dull cynicism soon echoed back. Many netizens on Weibo did not appear to trust the generally hard-working but otherwise reflexively patriotic migrant workers. Nor did they trust the government to unfetter full civil participation. 

@飞行的劳拉 ‘s comment evinced this mistrust of authorities: “Public demonstrations like this did not just happen overnight. These events, requiring more than mere days of planning, were just like political rallies typical of Mao’s times. The purpose of all this spectacle was two-fold: On one hand, the protests diverted people’s anger towards the government, and on the other, it was also an effective scare tactic. For those who want to politically mobilize, today’s chaos will [lead to] fear of tomorrow, [as] everyone saw how terribly things could go wrong.” He asked, “Do you still dare to mobilize?”{{7}}[[7]]这么大的事件,谋划也不是一两天可以完成的,是深谙政治同毛革手法的体现。其一可转移近期人民对表哥们的愤怒,避免危及政权;其二可恐吓人民,尔们若想革命改良,此便是结果,让尔亲见,尔敢否?尔要此混乱否?[[7]]

While any discussion of the government’s role in planning the recent protests is purely speculative, it is fair to say that last week’s protests appeared to be sanctioned by at least some quarters of Chinese officialdom. The police protected and chaperoned the crowd, keeping the situation from spiraling out of control. Following the protests, Chinese media called for restraint, but also took care to stoke patriotism by emphasizing that the protests reflected Chinese people’s righteous anger and self-determination.

Yet if comments on China’s Internet are any guide, the homogenous image of one nation unified against Japan’s territorial claims merely avoided the political challenges that it generated. At a time when locals are afraid of non-locals, the middle class afraid of the poor, and the government afraid of its own people, the recent anti-Japanese protests in China offer a telling reminder of the many regional and socio-economic divisions that continue to hold sway in the country today.

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Yi Lu

Born and raised in Shanghai, China, Yi Lu (Louis) is a junior studying History and French at Amherst College. Though fluent in Chinese, English, and French, he never fully feels at home in any. With writing, however, he hopes to weave together dissonant languages and cultures, and create a unifying story of truth and meaning.
  • Chris Zheng

    Louis has done it again! Beautifully written. Possibly my favorite article on TLN so far?

  • Chris Zheng

    Louis has done it again! Beautifully written. Possibly my favorite article on TLN so far?

  • http://www.facebook.com/vincent.capone Vincent Capone

    Great analysis! I owe you for finding that Cultural Revolution reference!

  • http://www.facebook.com/vincent.capone Vincent Capone

    Great analysis! I owe you for finding that Cultural Revolution reference!

  • Guess

    Since I am not a China chinese, I can’t say that I know everything about China that well, but here is my take on the situation in China.
    I think the inter class struggle we see above is the early symptom of social capitalism. I guess when China started with capitalism 30 years ago, it didn’t have enough money for everyone. If you are the government and if you have say 1 billion yuan, what would you do? You can give everyone 1 yuan and that is it, probably everyone will have an extra bowl of rice to eat for a day. Or you can invest this 1 billion into a selected hand full of large national champion and hopefully one day these national champions will be succesful and give a lift to those at the bottom.
    These large corporations have since then nurtured many entrepreneurs and professionals but perhaps they haven’t done enough for the rest. Their reason for not being able to take care of the rest may varies but the most common reason being this group of people are not properly trained or educated (or perhaps not correctly connected?!) Anyway, if these large corporations are forced to absorb those who are not suitable, chances are they themselves may sink, and it would nullify all the hard work and resources that had been poured into them.
    Now that the government noticed this gap in the society which they need to close and they also realised that they need to start developing its human capital in order to move up the value chain and to create an economy that focus more on domestic consumption. To address these issues, they have enacted policies to provide more affordable housing; better and cheaper medical care; social security and pension benefits; improve education and training and curb corruption and promote more democracy in the system. Of course it is never easy to implement these given all the internal and external challenges facing the country, don’t you think so?

  • Guess

    Since I am not a China chinese, I can’t say that I know everything about China that well, but here is my take on the situation in China.
    I think the inter class struggle we see above is the early symptom of social capitalism. I guess when China started with capitalism 30 years ago, it didn’t have enough money for everyone. If you are the government and if you have say 1 billion yuan, what would you do? You can give everyone 1 yuan and that is it, probably everyone will have an extra bowl of rice to eat for a day. Or you can invest this 1 billion into a selected hand full of large national champion and hopefully one day these national champions will be succesful and give a lift to those at the bottom.
    These large corporations have since then nurtured many entrepreneurs and professionals but perhaps they haven’t done enough for the rest. Their reason for not being able to take care of the rest may varies but the most common reason being this group of people are not properly trained or educated (or perhaps not correctly connected?!) Anyway, if these large corporations are forced to absorb those who are not suitable, chances are they themselves may sink, and it would nullify all the hard work and resources that had been poured into them.
    Now that the government noticed this gap in the society which they need to close and they also realised that they need to start developing its human capital in order to move up the value chain and to create an economy that focus more on domestic consumption. To address these issues, they have enacted policies to provide more affordable housing; better and cheaper medical care; social security and pension benefits; improve education and training and curb corruption and promote more democracy in the system. Of course it is never easy to implement these given all the internal and external challenges facing the country, don’t you think so?

  • RCal

    Great article! It’s nice to see the other side of all this.

  • RCal

    Great article! It’s nice to see the other side of all this.

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  • Cleo

    I’m pretty sure Japanese like to plant themselves in landmarked or historically significant buildings so these protests that getting hands on the culprits supersede any kevlar provided by standing behind a bust of DXP figuratively.

  • Cleo

    I’m pretty sure Japanese like to plant themselves in landmarked or historically significant buildings so these protests that getting hands on the culprits supersede any kevlar provided by standing behind a bust of DXP figuratively.