Shanghai’s Anti-Japan Protests – Seen from the streets

Unless you’ve been living under a rock the past week or so, you’ve probably heard something about a tricky little island group called, depending on who you ask, the Senkakus or the Diaoyu Islands.

The Diaoyu Islands (don’t take this as a political statement – this is a China-centric blog, so we’ll call them by their Chinese name) have been included in maps by both Japan and China as far back as the 15th century, but were uninhabited and not claimed until January 1895, when the government of Japan formally claimed the islands. From the website of the Japanese MOFA:

From 1885 on, surveys of the Senkaku Islands had been thoroughly made by the Government of Japan through the agencies of Okinawa Prefecture and by way of other methods. Through these surveys, it was confirmed that the Senkaku Islands had been uninhabited and showed no trace of having been under the control of China. Based on this confirmation, the Government of Japan made a Cabinet Decision on 14 January 1895 to erect a marker on the Islands to formally incorporate the Senkaku Islands into the territory of Japan.

To the best of my understanding, this action was completely in compliance with international law at the time regarding acquiring unclaimed territories. However, China claims that at the time, the Diaoyu Islands were already territory of the Qing Dynasty:

Ever since the early period of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the Diaoyu Islands have been clearly included in the territory and maritime defense sector of China and China’s sovereignty over the islands was recognized by Japan, which used Chinese names to identify the area, until modern times.

Before the middle of the 19th century, various maps published in Japan used the same color to mark China and the Diaoyu Islands.

At the same time, related documents and maps of Britain, France, United States and Spain also showed the Diaoyu Islands belonging to China.

Whichever side is correct, the islands were ceded to Japan in May 1895 as a result of the Treaty of Shimonoseki, which ended the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, along with Taiwan and various other subsidiary islands – a fact that both the Japanese and Chinese governments recognize.

During World War II, leaders of the United States, Britain, and China (at the time, representatives of the Republic of China led by Chiang Kai-shek) signed the Cairo Declaration, which stated that all Chinese territories seized by Japan should be returned to China. In 1945, the Potsdam Proclamation which was signed by the US, Britain, the ROC, and the USSR, stipulated that the Cairo Declaration should be carried out.

All fine and dandy – according to these two documents, the islands should have been returned to China after Japan’s surrender along with Taiwan, the Pescadores, Matzu, Jinmen, etc. However, in 1951 the US and Japan signed the San Francisco Peace Treaty, which officially ended World War II, the islands were to be dealt with as the government of the United States saw fit. The US saw fit to administer the islands as part of Okinawa Prefecture until 1972, when control of the islands was returned to the Japanese government. It is important to note that neither the government of the Republic of China nor the People’s Republic of China were signatories to the Treaty of San Francisco.

The debate over whom the islands should belong to rests on the disagreement between China and Japan over historical control of the islands. China claims that the islands were historically part of China because old documents (including some Japanese documents) say so; Japan claims that the islands were unclaimed before they claimed them in 1895.

The recent attention centered on the islands is the result of the Japanese government’s purchase of the islands from private (Japanese) citizens who owned the islands as a result of having purchased them from the government in 1931 (ownership was returned to the descendants of the original purchasers in 1972). In other words, the islands were Japanese territory that was owned by a private citizen, and the government bought them and made them public land. And, just like that, faster than you can say “wei, guang, zheng,” anti-Japan (反日) protests ignited across China.

Last Monday, I heard about anti-Japan demonstrations that were planned in Shanghai the following day, which was the anniversary of Japan’s occupation of Manchuria in 1931 (which, for China, was the real start of World War II).

The above image was shared on various Chinese websites to promote the demonstrations.

I was cautious about attending the demonstrations – over the days leading up to this, there had been dozens of reports of demonstrations turning into riots, with rioters destroying/setting fire to Japanese restaurants, stores, and factories, and even attacking foreigners (particularly those who looked Japanese). However, my curiosity to see a demonstration in China won out, particularly because this is likely the only chance to see one, as demonstrations on other topics are usually illegal. Luckily, the anti-Japanese protests here in Shanghai were very orderly (see this report from the Wall Street Journal or this report from China Digital Times).

I arrived at People’s Square around 9:45 to find people starting to gather and a heavy police presence. By 10:00, police had started to move the crowd away from People’s Square (click on pictures to expand them).

Police head off on buses, presumably to somewhere further along the parade route. A few moments earlier, police had shunted some demonstrators onto buses heading to the Japanese embassy.

Large crowd gathering near People’s Square

The crowd starts out, a few banners and Chinese flags unfurled.

Along the way, police would routinely be lined up, blocking demonstrators from walking through, but wouldn’t really stop demonstrators if they just walked around the police. Lots of cries of “愛國無罪” (“Patriotism is not a crime”) from demonstrators whenever they saw police, occasionally a “警察讓路” (“Police, let us pass”) as well.

Bus the police had come in

The head of the march. At this point, there were several hundred demonstrators present. The man on the left was a reporter – I’m not sure which paper he was from. There was also a foreign reporter following the march, snapping lots of pictures. A few people asked me if I was a reporter as well.

Marchers carrying a banner reading: 捍衛釣魚島 抵制日貨 打倒小日本 (Defend the Diaoyu Islands, Boycott Japanese goods, Down with little Japan)

Throughout the march, there were lots of cries of 愛國無罪 (Patriotism is not a crime), 打倒小日本 (Down with little Japan), 保衛釣魚島 (Defend the Diaoyu Islands), 愛我中華 (Love our country), 中國萬歲 (Long live China/10,000 years to China), and 抵制日貨 (Boycott Japanese goods). Also lots of people singing the March of the Volunteers.

 Police lined up to stop demonstrators. Again, they weren’t really stopping them, rather just controlling traffic and making sure the demonstrators went the direction the police wanted them to.

There was a brief scrum with police when demonstrators in the front just tried to push through. The police held them back, so the demonstrators just walked around the police.

While the demonstrators remained very calm, that’s not to say some of the things they were saying were not provocative. Above, two demonstrators hold up Japanese flags with the words 杀 (“kill”) and 滚 (“f*** off/scram) written on them.

Eventually, the police just started walking around the demonstrators.

As we approached the consulate, military police came into view. I’m not sure why the military guy in the back is filming.

Trucks the military police came in on (and the fact that I couldn’t get a picture of them without police blocking the shot really underscores just how many police were there).

 The military had set up metal barricades in the streets in the blocks leading up to the Japanese consulate.

They would let 50 people or so through at a time.

In the distance you can see one of the more provocative banners I observed: 向小日本开爆 (Fire at little Japan)

After they let a group through, the military would close back up.

勿忘國恥,保衛釣魚島 “Don’t forget our national shame, Protect the Diaoyu Islands”

I didn’t get a picture of it, but there was a banner declaring 殺光日本人 “Kill all the Japanese”, which was probably the most extreme thing I saw while I was there.

The police blocked people off here (still a small distance from the consulate) for about 15 minutes, at which point I decided to head home.

As I said before, the overall tone was very calm. I had a few people ask me if I’d come out to also “抗日” (“resist Japan”) to which I replied that I wasn’t, I was just interested in seeing people demonstrate. A few people asked me what my thoughts (on the Diaoyu Islands issue) are, to which I just replied that I thought the best thing would be if both sides talked it over in a rational manner. Someone asked me if I would hold their “打倒小日本” sign so they could take a picture, and I didn’t feel like saying no, so there’s probably a picture of a goofy-looking white guy holding a sign going around Weibo.

At this point, another guy came over and started talking to me in English, saying that “You can’t say the truth here” (presumably about what my real feelings about Japan/the Diaoyu islands/the protesters are), then started grumbling (in English) about the government a bit. He also complained that Chinese people aren’t very civilized and that most of the demonstrators probably didn’t know anything about the history of the Diaoyu islands and hadn’t done any research before coming out. He ended by saying that he thought it was funny that this was the only kind of march that is legal in China, and that he wants to move to America and become a citizen, but that it’s impossible to do so.

Most of the demonstrators I talked to, though, while they may not have been as informed on the issue as the anti-government fellow (and it’s hard to be, with internet censorship and government controlled education and media), did seem very proud of the fact that they were demonstrating peacefully (as opposed to rioting, as had happened in most other cities). One demonstrator proudly told me how “we Shanghainese are very civilized (文明).”

Ultimately, it’s important to remember that these protests are not only some of the only protests allowed by the authorities to really gain momentum, but they were practically endorsed by the authorities (for example, here in Shanghai the government organized buses to take demonstrators from the start of the marches to the Japanese consulate). Why? Protests such as these – at an issue that the government has made a central part of its identity – not only build support for the party, but also act as a social “release valve,” allowing dissatisfied to vent their anger over taboo topics by joining an endorsed protest. Furthermore, these protests serve as a smokescreen for issues the party doesn’t want the media (domestic and foreign) to focus on, such as the Tuesday trial of former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun. Check out this great post from China Digital Times for more on this topic.

To close, I’m just going to leave you with this video from the ever-amusing Next Media Animation of Taiwan:

China-Japan island dispute: patriotic protests backfire on Beijing


EDIT (00:05, 24.9.2012): I just saw a tweet that reminded me of another indicator of official endorsement of anti-Japan protests that I had forgotten to mention. All this past week, the term “反日” (anti-Japan) had not been blocked on Sina Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. Typically, when demonstrations become widespread, the government asks Sina and other social media companies to censor certain terms (such as 示威, demonstration), but these terms remained uncensored all week, until “反日” was finally blocked today, now that everyone’s been able to have their fun demonstrating.

EDIT (00:27, 24.9.2012): Contrary to last edit, “反日” appears to still be unblocked on Sina Weibo.