Demonstrations against Japan broke out in at least six Chinese cities over the weekend despite efforts by authorities to rein in the growing protest movement, reports said.
Calls for more protests tomorrow also circulated widely and spread on the internet, including a planned march to the Japanese consulate in the western city of Chongqing.
The ruling Communist Party newspaper issued an editorial calling the protests “understandable”, but urging demonstrators to plunge into their work and studies rather than take to the streets.
The government has encouraged nationalist outrage after Japan seized a Chinese fishing boat captain in disputed water but it also is wary of public protests, which have the potential to spin out of control and even challenge one-party rule.
Chinese protesters gathered yesterday in a number of relatively small cities outside the major centres, including Changsha in the south, and Baoji and Lanzhou to the west. On Saturday, hundreds of protesters had rallied in the south west city of Deyang.
Japanese television footage showed Chinese police watching closely and in some cases ripping down banners and escorting people away from the demonstrations. There were several hundred protesters but were no immediate reports of arrests or property damage.
The protests were sparked by a collision last month between a Chinese fishing boat and Japanese government patrol vessels near a chain of unoccupied islands in the East China Sea, called Diaoyutai by China, that are controlled by Japan but claimed by both countries. Japan detained the Chinese boat’s captain, but released him later.
Marchers carrying Chinese national flags chanted “love China” and “boycott Japanese goods”.
But other signs touched on sensitive domestic issues ranging from freedom of speech to high housing prices. One displayed in Baoji called for multiparty democracy, a challenge that could confirm fears among the communist leadership that a protest movement, if left unchecked, could evolve into confrontation with the party.
“They seem to be organised by ordinary people,” well known Diaoyutai activist Liu Feng said.
“They’re being held in smaller, more remote cities to avoid too much attention and pressure from the central government,” Liu said.
A man reached by phone at the Xinhua book shop along the protest route in Baoji said the afternoon protest lasted about an hour and broke up peacefully.
“There weren’t that many of them, shouting about loving China and not buying Japanese goods. There were also lots of police,” said the man, who declined to give his name.
Hoping to prevent larger protests, authorities in Baoji and other cities extended classes at schools through the weekend and guarded campus gates to prevent large numbers of students from leaving.
In its editorial posted to popular websites, the People’s Daily empathised with protesters but warned against actions that violate laws and regulations.
“Expressing one’s patriotic passions is understandable,” said the paper, whose editorials are vetted at the highest levels of the state propaganda machine.
“We believe that the vast majority will turn their patriotic passions into concrete actions in their daily life and safeguard the bigger picture of reform, development and stability,” the editorial said.