Following widespread and shocking anti-Japanese violence in China at the weekend, many observers are wondering — to what extent does the Chinese state condone or even support the protests?One thing does seem clear — if China really wanted to stop the protests, they could.
Charles Custer of the China Geeks blog made his perspective clear in his title — “China’s Anti-Japan Riots Are State-Sponsored. Period.” He goes on to argue that the distinct contrast in policing between anti-Japanese protests and anti-government protests in recent years shows that the Chinese state was happy for the anti-Japanese protest to exist:
The evidence that China is turning a blind eye to these protests is overwhelming. The absence of China’s police forces is glaringly obvious, especially in contrast to the vast numbers that turn up and start jumping in front of lenses and smashing cameras whenever a protest China’s government doesn’t like is scheduled to take place. China has clearly shown it is more than capable of keeping anti-Japan protests under control if it wants to. The obvious conclusion now — the only conclusion now — is that it doesn’t want to.
Another way to tell the Chinese government’s perspective on the protests is to look at its vast online censorship machine in action. Pretty much every English-language news article about a controversial subject in China in the last few years has had some variation of the sentence “Searches for [Bo Xilai, Tiananmen Square, Ferrari, etc etc] were blocked on Sina Weibo at the time of writing”. Online censorship has become a widespread and apparently efficient means for controlling public debate in China — we’ve seen data that suggests a topic can be completely blocked within three hours.
However, an article posted yesterday by Oiwan Lam on Global Voices found that China’s online censorship machine had been remarkably slow when faced with anti-Japanese protests. Many protests were organised over QQ, an instant messaging program widely used in China, which is usually subject to censorship. Weibo, which is frequently censored in times of crisis, did not censor searches for terms such as “Anti-Japan protest” at the weekend. In fact, some searches were so popular (“Diaoyu Islands”, “Protect Diaoyu”, “Protest”, and “Crushing”) they managed to enter the hot topic search list.
Why would China want huge, violent anti-Japanese protests on its streets? The answer seems obvious. Economic woes, a painful leadership transition, and an unprecedented level of public criticism of the state are now familiar problems to anyone following Chinese news. The protests, while messy, are a good way of getting attention away from these problems.
Many Chinese state newspapers have issued condemnations of the weekend’s violence today — here’s a translation of an article that appeared on the front page of the People’s Daily and an English-language news story that appeared in the Global Times. It seems likely that this is a sign that the Chinese state wants to dial back the violence — an acknowledgment, perhaps, that the extent of weekend’s anger took them somewhat by surprise. The real test for this will be tomorrow, when big protests are planned for a date that traditionally features big anti-Japanese protests.
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