Like many people around the world, I’ve spent some of the past few days looking at photos and reports about the escalating anti-Japan protests in China. There is an excellent collection of them here for those that are interested. Browsing it, your first inclination may be to marvel at the particularly insane bits, like the hotel advertising that Japanese guests are no longer welcome or the Audi dealership with banners outside that literally advocate mass genocide (is this a new Audi sales campaign?). But for anyone who has been to a protest in China before, your second inclination is going to be to say this: where are all the fucking cops?
If you didn’t think that, try scrolling through the album again — or just doing an image search for “protest Japan” on weibo — and looking for police officers. You’ll see a few, sure. But you won’t see many.
Now, let’s compare that to photos from the Beijing “Jasmine revolution” protest, an incident so small that it not only didn’t have any car-flipping, burning, or rioting, it didn’t even have any protesters. There was an army of police there; it’s somewhat evident in the few pictures I have on my site, but you’ll find better photos of the incident here, among other places.
But perhaps that’s an unfair comparison, so let’s turn to a very fair one: the anti-Japan protests outside Japan’s embassy on September 18, 2010. Conveniently, I took video of that one, but here’s a short excerpt from the post I wrote at the time:
What was impressive was the show of control put on by the police, especially given that the protesters were there in support of the official government line. By the time we got there in the afternoon, police had cordoned off at least a one-block radius in every direction around the Japanese embassy. The streets to the north and east of the embassy, outside of the police tape, were lined with PSB officers, one standing every five feet or so for several blocks. There were easily a hundred of them, and obviously many more inside the police tape.
By the time we got to the Western approach to the embassy, where a small crowd had gathered on the intersection of Xiushui St. and Xiushui North St., there were reportedly no protesters left inside the cordoned off area, just some Western reporters and a whole lot of police. It was a show of force, a demonstration of control.
Now, obviously, these protests are much bigger than the 2010 protests, or the Jasmine revolution non-protests. And just as obviously there are police monitoring the protests in China right now; I am not suggesting that these people are rampaging through the streets completely unimpeded or anything.
But anyone who has followed domestic protests in China for even a short period of time should be clear on the fact that if it wants to, the government has the means to totally shut these protests down. They may have sent in the tanks back in ’89, but these days there are legions of trained riot police, People’s Armed Police, and other anti-protest forces. Every major city has them. If you think that China doesn’t have the law enforcement capability to totally shut down these riots, you’re delusional. If these were anti-government protests, not only would they not have carried on this long, but half the people in those photos would be in jail by now. Before the Jasmine protests (for example) police nationwide were literally arresting people just for considering going to the protests, not to mention people police thought might go.
The Global Times writes this morning in an op-ed condemning the violence:
There is no reason to suspect that the government is turning a blind eye to the violence seen over the weekend. This is simply the view of those who make a habit of criticizing the government.
Really? Then where is China’s police force? Even if all the riot police are busy doing traffic stops or something, I’d think if nothing else the chengguan could handle something like this pretty easily (and we all know how much they hate it when people dirty up city sidewalks).
The evidence that China is turning a blind eye to these protests is overwhelming. The absence of China’s police forces is glaringly obvious, especially in contrast to the vast numbers that turn up and start jumping in front of lenses and smashing cameras whenever a protest China’s government doesn’t like is scheduled to take place. China has clearly shown it is more than capable of keeping anti-Japan protests under control if it wants to. The obvious conclusion now — the only conclusion now — is that it doesn’t want to.
(Obviously, if we were to look at the sabre-rattling that has been going on in China’s media, we’d find more evidence that the government is not-so-subtly fanning the flames here. Case in point: a sympathetic editorial about the protests in the People’s Daily. That link is now broken, but the it is cited in the New York Times.)
Some will probably still feel that the title of this blog post is a bit sensationalist, but I disagree. The state many not be financially supporting — or even publicly encouraging — these protests, but I would argue the low police presence and apparent lack of attempted control sends a very strong message of support, especially in a country where you can get arrested and sentenced to a year of labor for a retweeting a joke.
Chinese citizens should have the right to protest publicly, of course, but that right should not extend to the destruction of property or to violence. The government should absolutely be doing much more than it is to control these protests, and I hope that it will step up soon, or tomorrow (9/18) could be very, very ugly. I think a lot of these protesters need to look themselves in a mirror and ask why they’re willing to beat their own countrymen and advocate exterminating the Japanese over some rocks they have never visited (and will never visit). But China’s government needs to be held accountable for the role it is playing in this violence as, by and large, it stands on the sidelines, content to let Chinese citizens in the wrong place at the wrong time driving the wrong car take the heat just because it’s a good distraction from the series of blunderous scandals that has been this year in Chinese domestic politics.
UPDATE: I have heard from several people who attended the Beijing protests that those were well-staffed with police and security. It does seem from photos and other evidence that the situation wasn’t the same in many other cities though, which would explain why there wasn’t much destruction in Beijing but there seems to have been elsewhere. I’m not sure why this is, but a Chinese friend emailed me a theory that I find very interesting. Make of it what you will:
The whole anti-Japanese thing is definitely state-owned, no doubt.
But I think you can go deeper…one party, different fractions
/clique…as far i as I am concerned,there are three major fractions
As for this event..it is Hu’s and Jiang’s at play….
Look at the most violent cities, Xi’an, Chang’ sha, etc…they all are
under Hu’s folks
Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou…lol….Shanghai clique…
UPDATE 2: Found this image just now, via this site. This would certainly seem to be evidence the protests are state-supported, no?
I suppose the police could be confiscating this vehicle, but somehow I doubt it. And I’m not sure why they’d confiscate it rather than ripping off the banners (since the result of getting in it without ripping off the banners is precisely this bad-PR photo, though it’ll be good PR to some folks in China). For those that can’t read them, the top one says “When Chinese people get angry the results are serious!” and the big one along the side is the same message as the Audi dealership; ‘Even if we turn China into a field of tombstones we must eliminate all Japanese.’ The other bits are (unsurprisingly) anti Japanese slogans about eliminating the Japanese, not worshipping Aoi Sola, etc.
In other anecdotal-but-interesting news, a friend of my wife’s family, who works for a city government in China, was taken along with his coworkers to a (mandatory) anti-Japan protest on Tuesday. Sounds pretty state-sponsored to me.