Two severed mannequin heads were skewered on top of bamboo pikes that were held by a couple of young protesters in the streets of Taizhou, a mid-size city three hours from Shanghai. The plastic heads had crossed out Japanese flags markered onto the cheeks and Chinese characters expressing various insults were drawn all over them. One beheaded mannequin even had the word “Fuck” scrawled upon it’s forehead. I walked up to one of the young protesters and asked him an obvious question just to hear his response:
“Is that head of a Japanese person?”
He responded in the affirmative and pumped the severed head in the air. Then in English he said, “Kill.”
His friends laughed but he wasn’t joking.
Besides the fact that these youth were proudly parading severed mannequin heads that were symbolic stand-ins for Japanese women, they did not seem at all out of the ordinary. They were typical Chinese youth expressing a typical Chinese sentiment against a country and people they’ve been raised to hate.
The weekend of September 15th and 16th, 2012, anti-Japanese protests engulfed more than 50 cities across China, in Taiwan, and various Chinatowns around the world. They were sparked over the finalization of the sale of the Diaoyu Island chain by a private owner to the government of Japan.
Diaoyu Islands may be small but they’re a big symbol
“Uninhabited and without any known natural resources, the Diaoyu controversy is nonetheless a cause célèbre,” –The China Digital Times.
The Diaoyu Islands are literally nothing. They are a string of tiny little insignificant islands poking their heads out of the East China Sea that birds occasionally shit on. Though it was suggested in 1963 that there could be mineral reserves near the islands, nobody has actually found any yet. As far as land area is concerned these islands are small, the largest being five square kilometers. Nobody lives on these islands, and it’s been disputed if they are even habitable. For the most part, they would be completely inconsequential if they did not become a central symbol over which the the Chinese could vent their pent-up animosity against Japan. Like so, a string of virtually useless islands have become a central focus in the political interplay of East Asia.
China lays historic claim to them, as they were a part of China leading up to the end of the 19th century. By extension, Taiwan (who, for the record, also claims all of China), says that the Diaoyu Islands belong to them. All the while Japan has been administering the chain of islets since the US handed them over as part of the Treaty of Okinawa in 1972.
After the US ceded control of the Diaoyu Islands they were returned to the private sector, and parts of the chain had been leased intermittently to the Japanese government and the US military. But just this week the islands were formally sold to Japan, much to the chagrin of China and Taiwan.
In point, this useless string of rocks have become an over-bloated symbol of nationalistic pride among the contending countries, and each of the involved governments are under extreme pressure from their citizens to exert control over them.
I watched as protesters moved through the streets of Taizhou, carrying anti-Japanese banners while chanting slogans advocating the reclamation of the island chain by any means necessary. There were at least five thousand people participating in the demonstration, and many more who were spectators.
One banner read, “Overthrow Japanese imperialism, boycott Japanese products.” Another said, “Keep protecting the motherland, together we will oppose Japan.” Another large banner simply stated, “Firmly protect Diaoyu Island.” While yet another banner that had a defaced Japanese flag on it with a nuclear symbol in the place of the rising sun said something to the effect of, “The national flag is back, that means it’s down with Japan.”
Various chants resounded through the crowd: “Be hostile to Japan, boycott Japanese products, we can fight for Diaoyu,” one went.
As I stood in the streets and waited for the march to begin there were two contending veins of emotion resonating through the crowd:
One was joyful and almost playful, as though a holiday was going on. Many people were smiling and laughing, taking pictures of themselves and shooting video of the protest that was getting under way.
The other was dark and sinister. It was anger, it was war-like, it was pure and unencumbered nationalism. This later group were at the fore of the demonstration. They were chanting slogans with snarls on their faces, they were revved up, angry, completely fanatical.
When the march began the more active group of protesters took the lead. They stomped through the streets at a brisk pace, their chant was nearly a war cry, and it was clear that if anyone got in their way they would be run over. When they came up to intersections they would make a war-cry in unison and run through it. One individual was sitting on the roof of a car which flanked the demonstration. He was holding a sign and waving a butcher’s knife in the air as he led the crowd in chants.
I was witnessing the fervor of nationalism, I was watching a tribe whip itself up into a war-like frenzy in preparation to do battle with people over a thin sea who they call the enemy. The message was clear here: if the Chinese government will not step up and openly fight Japan militarily then the people of China will fight them by any means necessary.
A mass boycott of anything related to Japan was called for. Tourism agencies stopped booking tours to Japan, and people spread the word that they were not to buy anything Japanese — even though most of these products are actually made in China.
It soon became clear how it would be enforced. I watched as a Suzuki motorcycle shop was splattered with a sticky black substance. I also saw the aftereffects of what happens when a mob of angry Chinese protesters find a Japanese car parked in the streets. The inauspiciously placed Honda had its windows bashed in by a splinter group from the main protest. The car’s battered corpse then served as a trophy for crowds of spectators to gather around and photograph. It’s not my impression that any arrests were made. It was clear that the police here were of the same cut as the protesters, and they seemed to go about their work with little gusto — doing what they had to do to maintain order but little more. I watched as they hung out around the battered Honda, taking photos of it and the protesters with their cell phones like everyone else.
Later on I watched as a group of twenty-somethings tried to burn a homemade Japanese flag in the street. After discovering that they had mistakenly made the flag out of a flame retardant material, they resorted to simpler measures and just sliced it to pieces with knives and box cutters before stomping it into complete ruin.
Nationalism is rarely friendly to foreigners, and though I felt far more animosity than I ever felt before in China I can not say that at any point I felt in danger. I was approached by a fanatic or two who demanded to know my nationality, bu that was about it. Generally, the protesters either ignored my presence or said something to the effect of “Hey, there’s a foreigner,” while acting more surprised than usual about my presence. Though nobody was overtly antagonistic towards me I would not say that the mood was particularly welcoming. Nationalism is based on an Us and Them dichotomy, and me and my American-ness clearly did not fall in the Us category.
What I observed in Taizhou paled in comparison of what was happening concurrently in other parts of the the county. A Panasonic factory was burned to the ground in Qingdao. The Chinese workers of several Toyota and Honda plants sabotaged their workplaces — some also being set on fire. The Beijing Evening News advocated the use of the atomic bomb in a potential war with Japan. Hundreds of Japanese cars and businesses selling Japanese products were vandalized across the country.
Protests are not rare in China, but they are seldom organized. Generally, a group of people who are angry about a situation take to the streets in the form of a mob. They are usually easy to control and the police or company goons often make quick work of them.
These anti-Japanese protests were very different. They were very well organized — some, it’s widely rumored, were even arranged by local government officials in various cities. It was clear that a high degree of premeditation and planning when into these demonstrations, and many of the protesters even had factory made banners. Everyone knew where to meet and they paraded through the streets in a single mass. The police clearly knew the route they would travel in advance, and they took proper measures to manage traffic. For the most part, some of the protests that rocked China this past weekend appeared to have been sanctioned by local authorities. This is very rare in this country.
The true prospects of war
Even if China is filled with graves, we must still kill all Japanese. Even if no grass grows on the mainland, we must still recover Diaoyu.
This is a popular banner that has been unfurled at various protests around the country, but I must ask if this conflict is for real. On an individual level, the sentiments and fanaticism that I observed in the streets of Taizhou were very real, but whether they are anything more than a whipping up of nationalism prior to a major government change in China is up for very serious speculation.
When I first read that a thousand Chinese fishing boats were making way for the Diaoyu Islands I immediately thought that a major international incident could ensue. It was my first impression that these boats were taking an action independent of their government — which could have very real ramifications — but then it became apparent that they’re nothing more than an excessive propaganda exercise. This is, apparently, how China plans to save face in this incident: a flotilla of fishing boats decked out with Chinese flags that are going to do a little show around Diaoyu tomorrow, which is the anniversary of Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in WW2.
Political theater. Japan and China will not go to war anytime soon.
The fervor of nationalism that had enveloped China this past weekend was very, very real. Whether it was a political ploy to whip up national cohesion as the government has a change of guard or a show to true dissension in the ranks is irrelevant: the shear hatred that was displayed in the streets could not have been faked. When the crowds chanted “Fight Japan, death to the Japanese” they meant it. When a guy in Shanghai drove his Honda back to the dealership, unfurled a banner that read “Death to the Japanese devils” and set his own car on fire, he wasn’t messing around. When various Chinese individuals physically assaulted people in restaurants and in the streets just because they were Japanese they were displaying genuine racism. No matter how it’s angled, nationalism is always ugly.
But there were voices of sense in this madness, and the Chinese novelist Wang Shuo summed the situation up best when he said, “The same kind of people who are called fascists in Japan and Nazis in Germany are called patriots in China.”
Hopefully the dust will soon settle and the sect of protesters who were joking around, toying with their cellphones, and expressing their hatred of Japan with smiles on their faces during the demonstrations this past weekend will return to being the dominant element in the streets of China.
These anti-Japananest protests were not just to blow of steam against a rival nation, but were to let the Chinese governement know that a rather large sect of their population are not satisfied with the image of China that they are projecting to the world. They feel as if their government is being weak. In point, they are angry with their government because it won’t give them what they want: revenge.