In a chilling demonstration of people-power, anti-Japanese riots exposed Beijing's vulnerability in a crisis.
Although the worst of tensions between China and Japan seem to be behind us for now, the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands fracas continues to rock the two countries' relations with no easy solution in sight. I happened to be in Beijing for a conference during that mid-September week in which protests and violence across China crescendoed (surprisingly, the Chinese hosts did not cancel the meetings), and the ugliness of Chinese nationalism was on full display. It was the week that included September 18, an infamous date seared into most Chinese memories as the day that Japan invaded Manchuria 81 years ago. To be frank, as the date approached, I had some personal trepidations because I am often mistaken for Japanese in China.
But the dramatic few days of nationalistic outbursts gave way to calmer temperaments with a sort of efficiency that led many to believe the government orchestrated the protests. I'd quibble with that characterization because much of the nationalism, even if it wasn't manifested violently, was genuine and potentially dangerous. In retrospect, I thought sharing several pictures and stories, including a bizarre incident that involved me personally, can provide a fuller range of Chinese nationalism.
They are so damn worse than beasts. The car was smashed anyway, despite the female car owner's repeated pleading. In the chaos, her child was also missing...is this the so-called anti-Japanese nationalism? Cry, cry.
The usually acerbic-tongued Han Han, Chinese blogger extraordinaire, also inveighed against the outright violence and destruction of property:
No one who has bought a Japanese car thought they were supporting Japan's violation of China's territory; they just wanted an economical, fuel efficient car with easy upkeep...I suggest that when media organizations cover news about Chinese people seriously violating one another's rights, that they keep the word 'patriotism' out of it. How is this loving your country?
Han Han's sentiments were shared by other Chinese, particularly among a middle class that is more conscious of property rights and would prefer to protect their Toyotas and Hondas. Such was the case for one clever Beijinger, shown in the photo below (courtesy of Chris Janiec, an American who teaches at China Foreign Affairs University and part of my delegation):
An ostensible Chinese flag decal is slapped over the Toyota logo, even though the car was manufactured in southern China. But what struck me was the large bumper sticker with white characters stretched across the bumper. It says: "The owner of this vehicle bought it before Japan's base crimes. But from now on, will boycott Japanese products!" In other words, this was a plea to not smash his car by appealing to righteous patriotism -- we can protest the Japanese but still protect our property! Such pragmatic patriotism was common among the Chinese middle class, many of whom were unnerved by scenes of store burnings and topsy turvy Japanese cars in the street. By then, even the official CCTV has changed its tune. In virtually every newscast I saw, the message was uniformly "rational patriotism" (理性的爱国), a clear reflection of the fear at the top that these demonstrations may spin out of control.
In one instance, it did almost spiral out of control, when anti-Japanese sentiment was momentarily redirected to the United States. The now well-known incident of a protest mob attacking Ambassador Gary Locke's car as it was pulling out of the embassy (see video below):