Reflections on a Sunday of Protests in China

“To reap the whirlwind”. It’s an ancient English saying, taken originally from the Bible. It means that actions in the past can end up having very large, unexpected consequences.

This phrase is very much on my mind today, as I listen to two unfamiliar sounds from outside my window in Shenzhen: one is of helicopters circling close overhead. The other is thousands of voices shouting angry slogans in unison. In Shenzhen today, as in cities across China, there are large demonstrations being staged to protest Japanese claims to some offshore islands nearest to Taiwan known, in Chinese, as Diaoyudao, and in Japanese as Senkaku.

I happen to live near both one of Shenzhen’s largest shopping malls, as well as its main street, known as Shennan Avenue. Demonstrators are parading down this street, and then stopping in front of the mall to wave Chinese flags and scream “Smash Japanese imperialism”, and, somewhat more incongruously, the soccer chant, “Let’s Go China” (”中国加油“) .

The shopping mall is shut today, for a second straight day, with a phalanx of Chinese police in riot gear standing between it and the demonstrators. The main tenant inside the mall is Jusco, the Japanese supermarket and department store. The mall also houses local outlets of high-end global brands like Louis Vuitton, Cartier and Ralph Lauren. A lost weekend like this is the last thing these big luxury brands need, of course, as their sales in China are already weakening because of slowing economic growth.

I’m no expert in maritime law. Equally, I’m not familiar with all the facts, claims and counterclaims about these islands. It seems rather self-evident, when looking at the map, that the islands should belong indisputably to China. But, at the moment, they are mainly a source of significant national irritation in China. Demonstrations here are rare, and always involve some degree of government approval. Tempers are high today, but not uniformly so. Mixed in with angry young men of all ages are lots of families with kids, waving small Chinese flags, taking photos as well as taking obvious pride in their Chinese identity. That’s all to the good.

And yet, I’m still more than a little uneasy. I probably have a higher-than-average sensitivity to the character and tone of Chinese street protests. I was in Beijing during the Tiananmen Incident in June 1989. All these years later, the two filaments embedded in memory are the sound of a massive angry crowd chanting in Chinese, and how quickly, explosively, unpredictably an orderly, even good-natured, protest can turn into a violent and uncontrollable mob.

The term “collective wisdom” is one I often struggle with. In my experience, the size of a crowd is often inversely correlated with the reasonableness of its behavior.  This is as true in the US or Europe as it is in China. Less than a year after witnessing the events in Tiananmen, my neighborhood in London was engulfed in what was called the Poll-Tax Riots, as tens of thousands of people took to the streets to protest an unpopular new tax. It turned into an anarchic frenzy of looting and hooliganism, as rioters set fire to restaurants and cars, and beat unarmed British police. Excitement and incitement are close cousins.

Anti-Japanese feelings run deep in China. There is no easier way to rouse a rabble here. On any given night, at least one of the country’s main television broadcasters will show during prime time a historical drama about the Japanese invasion of China, often featuring quite graphic levels of violence.  For an American, it would be something like one of the three networks broadcasting every night, every week of every year a series about the cruel Japanese mistreatment of Allied POWs during the Bataan Death March. Anti-Japanese entertainment sells in China. This year’s big budget Chinese movie, the Zhang Yimou directed The Flower of War (金陵十三钗), was set against the backdrop of the 1937 Rape of Nanjing, and included the most horrifyingly violent and realistic images of barbarism and cruelty I’ve ever seen in a film.

Chinese lack no justification for their anti-Japanese sentiments. And yet, as this nation continues its remarkable rise, the dark grievances of the past must fade in the light of China’s current achievement and progress.  I find powerful logic in the words of a Chinese patriot who died 99 years ago, Tang Guo’an (唐国安), the first president of Tsinghua University. During the height of the deplorable Western occupation of China, Tang wrote  “were the positions reversed, China might accord even worse treatment to foreign nations. It behooves us, then, not to entertain unworthy thoughts of hatred and resentment, which will be of no avail.”


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