So after a wave of rather violent anti-Japan protests I argued were state-supported, the madness has wound down — or rather, been wound down — by the same folks who drummed it up: the government. This is not an uncommon tactic at all, but it is an exceedingly dangerous one.
Let us take, for example, the attack on US Ambassador Gary Locke’s car that occurred near the end of this wave of protests. Chinese security stepped in fairly quickly and there was little damage to the car and no injuries to anyone involved. That’s fortunate, but just consider the ramifications if something had gone differently.
Say Chinese security reacted too slowly, being unprepared for a threat to the US Ambassador’s life at a time when everyone was busy destroying Japanese things. Say some overzealous protester in the crowd brought a molotov cocktail, or that Locke had been dragged out of the car and beaten or killed. It is certainly possible; while the vast majority of protesters would certainly never go this far, there were reported beatings in several areas during the protests and the ethnically Chinese US Ambassador could feasibly become a target of some rage if the US is perceived as opposing China’s claim to the islands. Anyway, let’s say things go badly and Locke is dragged out of the car and beaten, perhaps killed.
The damage to China’s international reputation would be immediate and severe. China’s government will claim that the protests were not government-supported and point out that Chinese security forces were attempting to protect and rescue the Ambassador, but these claims will be downed out as the international media reports on the many inflammatory articles and reports that appeared in state-owned media prior to the protests, and compares China’s approach to controlling anti-Japan protests to its approach to controlling pro-democracy ones ((I don’t have room to go into this here, but if you haven’t been following it, this is one of the interesting sub-stories from this round of anti-Japan protests. Many of the protesters who were arrested by security forces were people who were chanting slogans opposing corruption or advocating political reform, not people who were violently vandalizing Chinese-owned, vaguely “Japanese” businesses.)). It will point out articles like this one by Evan Osnos of the New Yorker, which says that police loudspeakers were blaring messages of sympathy and support even as they urged rationality and calm. The foreign media will come to the basically same conclusion I did: at best, China’s government could have done far more to control these protests; at worst, China’s government was actively encouraging them and supporting them until they got out of hand. Opinions of China will plummet internationally, and the incident will reinforce the stereotype that Chinese people are brainless nationalist drones. (To a certain extent, this has happened anyway).
China will condemn the attack, and find and punish the rioters responsible, but this will not sake the anger of the United States Congress, which will (because it is mostly full of idiots) be screaming for blood. Some will consider it an act of war. Chinese flags will be burned in the streets, and Chinese-Americans will start saying their parents are Taiwanese, at least for a little while. It will get ugly, and even imagining the best case scenario, it will impede any kind of development in the Sino-US relationship for years to come. Meanwhile, Chinese nationalists will be protesting the backlash, creating an echo-chamber of nationalist yelling and mutual flag-burning.
Of course, it’s possible that this will never happen. I’m not sure what the chances are. But the government is rolling the dice every time it encourages outpourings of nationalism like this with a media frenzy like the one we saw leading up to these protests. The media should be free to report whatever it deems newsworthy, and protesters should be free to protest whatever they want. But in China, where neither of those things are the case, the government must understand that it is going to be seen as ultimately responsible for what the press says and what protesters do. If it keeps allowing things to reach the brink of boiling point before pulling back, one of these times, it is going to be too late, and even though it wasn’t the government committing the crimes, the government will ultimately be left holding the ball.