HONG KONG — Anti-Japanese protests spread across China over the weekend, with the landing of Japanese activists on a disputed island on Sunday and the unfurling of Japanese flags increasing tensions between the two countries.
Protesters took to the streets in nearly a dozen Chinese cities on Saturday and Sunday in response to Japan’s detention on Wednesday and deportation on Friday of activists from Hong Kong, Macau and China. Demonstrations took place in cities up and down China’s eastern provinces, from Harbin and Shenyang in the northeast to Guangzhou and Shenzhen in the southeast, according to Xinhua, the official news agency.
Chinese state media portrayed the demonstrations as fairly small, involving fewer than 200 people, and not extending to inland provinces. But photographs posted on Sina Weibo, the country’s most widely used microblogging service, suggested that the crowds had been far larger.
In one image said to be from the southwestern city of Chengdu, deep in China’s interior, the number of protesters appeared to be in the tens of thousands.
“Defend the Diaoyu Islands to the death,” one banner said. Another said, “Even if China is covered with graves, we must kill all Japanese.”
Another photograph showed a handwritten sign taped to the entrance of Suning, a popular electronics store, telling customers it was no longer selling Japanese products.
Some protests appear to have turned violent. According to several postings, demonstrators on Sunday attacked sushi restaurants or other businesses perceived to have a Japanese connection. Several photographs said to be from Shenzhen, across the border from Hong Kong, showed what appeared to be damaged or overturned cars — most of them Japanese models — as well as several police vehicles.
Japanese flags were burned outside the Japanese consulate in Guangzhou, according to The Asahi Shimbun newspaper in Japan.
On Sunday, Global Times, a nationalist-inflected newspaper owned by People’s Daily, the Communist Party mouthpiece, held an impromptu seminar on the crisis, with many participants calling for more radical action. During the seminar, one hawkish analyst, Dai Xu, called on the Chinese military to seize Japanese ships.
Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan, one of the most outspokenly hawkish generals in China, called on Beijing to send 100 boats to defend the islands. “If necessary, we could make the Diaoyu Islands a target range for China’s air force and plant mines around them,” he said.
“We need to fight back against Japan with equal proportion,” he said, according to a microblog posting by the newspaper.
The general has also called publicly for China to take a more assertive stance toward the Philippines in territorial disputes. American experts say that a sizable faction within the People’s Liberation Army favors a more vigorous pursuit of China’s territorial claims, but that it is unclear whether this is the dominant perspective within the military.
But Hu Xijin, the editor of Global Times and an organizer of the seminar, counseled restraint, a departure from his usually militant writings on China’s territorial disputes. He belittled the Japanese activists as “provocative right-wing monkeys,” but said the contretemps was not worth a full-scale war between the two countries. “Chinese people, please don’t be overly angered by this, just regard them as monkeys,” he wrote. “We should have more confidence and view Japan from a global perspective.”
The demonstrations appeared to be sanctioned and chaperoned by the police, who generally prohibit public protests unless they suit the needs of the Communist Party. In the past, Beijing has allowed nationalist sentiment to bubble up into street demonstrations, but the authorities usually keep them contained out of concern they might spiral out of control or metastasize into popular anti- government sentiment.
Indeed, while many postings on microblogs expressed rage against the Japanese, a significant number criticized the Chinese government for its timidity. Many such postings, however, were promptly deleted.
Even as the protests began unfolding on Sunday, a group of conservative Japanese activists may have planted the seeds for further anger in China. As many as 10 of them swam ashore on Sunday morning on the same uninhabited island that the Chinese activists had visited and displayed Japanese flags there.
Japan calls the island chain the Senkaku and China labels it the Diaoyu. Japan has long controlled the islands, but China also claims them.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry had asked Japan on Saturday to make sure that no Japanese activists reached the island. On Sunday, the Foreign Ministry urged Tokyo to rein in the activists.
“Japanese right-wing elements have illegally violated China’s territorial sovereignty,” a spokesman, Qin Gang, said in a statement on the ministry’s Web site. “Relevant officials from the Foreign Ministry have already made stern representations to the Japanese ambassador, making a strong protest and urging Japan to cease actions that are damaging China’s territorial sovereignty.”
The Japanese activists were part of a group of conservative members of Parliament and local politicians who arrived at the island in the East China Sea on a flotilla of nearly two dozen boats. The Japanese Coast Guard did not release the names of the activists who had made it to shore.
The incident came four days after 14 activists from Hong Kong, Macau and mainland China landed on the same island, Uotsuri. Half of them managed to reach the shore and held aloft the flags of China, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
The Japanese Coast Guard detained all 14 but released them Friday without filing charges. Seven flew back to Hong Kong on Friday evening, while the rest are sailing back in their vessel.
New evidence emerged over the weekend that the Chinese and Hong Kong governments had tried but failed to stop the initial group of activists from traveling to the disputed island chain.
The Hong Kong police said in a statement that a police launch had been sent on Aug. 12 to intercept the activists’ vessel, the Kai Fung No. 2, before it could leave Hong Kong’s territorial waters. When the vessel ignored an order to stop, four police officers boarded the vessel, only to find that access to the wheelhouse, cabin and engine room had been locked.
With the vessel close to entering international waters, the police left the vessel without attempting to break in, the police statement said, which confirmed an account in Sunday editions of the Hong Kong newspaper The South China Morning Post.
The city’s Marine Department had prevented activists aboard the same vessel from leaving Hong Kong on Jan. 3, making the argument then that the Kai Fung No. 2 was a fishing boat and was not safe or certified for trips unrelated to fishing. The police said Sunday that the Marine Department had asked that the vessel be stopped under an ordinance that gives the department the option of requiring anyone to obtain permission before leaving Hong Kong by sea.
Confrontations between Japan and China on or near the contested islands have the potential to become larger international incidents. China halted exports of crucial rare earth metals to Japan for nearly two months after the Japanese Coast Guard in 2010 detained a mainland Chinese fishing vessel that slammed into a coast guard ship when it was intercepted near one of the island.
The export halt drew international attention to Chinese restrictions on exports of rare earths and helped lead to the filing last spring of a World Trade Organization case challenging China’s right to limit exports of such important minerals. Japan joined the United States and the European Union in filing the case, the first time that Tokyo has brought a trade case against its much larger neighbor.
A rare earth industry executive said there had been no sign so far this time of a disruption in Chinese exports of the strategic minerals. The executive insisted on anonymity because of the diplomatic sensitivity of the issue.