Comparative Politics

Nationalism and Anti-Japan Demonstrations in China

Sep 19 '12

We are delighted to welcome the following guest post by Jessica Weiss, an assistant professor at Yale University who has extensively researched anti-Japan demonstrations in China.


Anti-Japanese demonstrations have been reported in as many as 120 cities across China, following more than a month of escalating demonstrations against Japan’s nationalization of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. Protests over the weekend turned violent in several cities, destroying Japanese-branded stores and cars. Although the protests have not been as deadly as some in the Middle East, the degree of property damage and vitriol—including some slogans calling for Japan’s extermination—has aroused alarm. With increased patrols by Japanese and Chinese ships and reports of a thousand-strong Chinese “fishing armada” enroute to the disputed waters, risk of military conflict between these two powers is growing. On his trip to Asia, Defense Secretary Panetta stated that “Obviously we are concerned by the demonstrations, and we are concerned by the conflict that is taking place over the Senkaku Islands.”

What significance do these nationalist protests have for China’s foreign policy? Should we dismiss these protests as mere street theater, a pressure valve, or a convenient distraction from domestic grievances? China scholars have debated the extent to which popular nationalism is a state-led strategy to bolster its legitimacy or a grassroots phenomenon that could jeopardize state control. Both views are partially correct. Nationalist protests are indeed dangerous to domestic and diplomatic stability, especially in authoritarian regimes that lack other channels for popular participation. But the government is strategic in whether it allows nationalist protesters to mobilize, weighing the diplomatic and domestic benefits of tolerance versus repression. In my forthcoming article in International Organization, I argue that it is the risk and cost of suppression that makes nationalist protest a credible diplomatic signal, giving authoritarian leaders like China’s the ability to showcase their vulnerability to mass opinion and domestic audiences.

The latest protests are part of a broader pattern of anti-foreign demonstrations in China, including anti-Japanese protests in 1985, 2005, and 2010, as well as anti-American protests after NATO accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia. The Chinese government has also often prevented nationalist protests, detaining activists the night before or dispersing crowds as soon as they gather, as in 2001, when a Chinese fighter jet and U.S. spy plane collided, and when earlier disputes with Japan erupted over the disputed islands in 1990 and 1996. By tolerating protests that threaten to spiral out of control, China has been able to signal resolve; whereas by repressing protests, the government has been able to signal reassurance, demonstrating its willingness to spend domestic political capital for the sake of international cooperation.

China views Japan’s recent decision to nationalize the islands as violating a tacit agreement to “set aside” the territorial issue. Although Japan denies that such an agreement was reached or that the islands’ sovereignty is in dispute, the Noda government appears to have underestimated the strength of China’s opposition, believing that nationalizing the islands would be less offensive that allowing the rightwing Tokyo governor to purchase them. But high-profile landings of activists from Hong Kong and Japan have raised the stakes and salience of Japan’s actions, putting pressure on China to show resolve in defending its territorial claims.

Yet recent developments make it increasingly difficult to discern China’s intentions, as I was recently quoted in the Los Angeles Times. The increasingly viral mobilization of protests via social media makes it harder, though not impossible, for the government to prevent large-scale protests. The subnational variance in police tactics is also challenging to interpret. In key cities, visible efforts to reduce the risk that protests get out of hand—such as police instructions to stay “on message” and march in orderly groups—may also undermine the perceived sincerity and spontaneity of popular demonstrations. Japanese media and observers have reported that this week’s protests in Beijing and Shanghai were more orchestrated than those in second and third tier cities, such as Xi’an, Shenzhen, Haikou, Qingdao, and Suzhou. Nonetheless, stage management may limit the danger of instability while still conveying that domestic nationalism constrains China’s foreign policy. As Condoleeza Rice writes in her memoir: “Time and time again we would see this. China would stir up nationalist sentiment in the population through the state-controlled media, diminishing its own room for maneuver as it reacted to the very passions it had created.”

The ultimate outcome of the dispute will depend on a number of factors, including whether the Japanese government believes that concessions will bolster a moderate Chinese leadership and help restore stability. Although the main risk is to the Chinese regime itself, many Japanese have a vested interest in a stable China. For example, anti-Japanese protests in the 1980s led Japanese Prime Minister Nakasone to abandon visits to Yasukuni Shrine, which enshrines 14 A-class war criminals. Nakasone explained his decision as an effort to strengthen China’s reform-minded and moderate leader, Hu Yaobang, against conservative critics: “If he were to be overthrown it would be a major loss to the world and to Japan. It was with this in mind that it stopped my visits to the Yasukuni Shrine.” As for Beijing, China’s leaders may decide that the risks to stability outweigh the diplomatic gains. To wind down protests and avoid the brunt of popular anger, however, the Chinese government may be forced to take escalatory measures to satisfy nationalist demands.

Further Reading:

Gries, Peter. 2004. China’s New Nationalism. Stanford University Press;

He, Yinan. 2009. The Search for Reconciliation: Sino-Japanese and German-Polish Relations Since World War II. Cambridge University Press;

Shirk, Susan. China: Fragile Superpower. Oxford: Oxford University Press;

Reilly, James. 2012. Strong society, smart state: the rise of public opinion in China’s Japan policy. New York: Columbia University Press.