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Boycott of Japanese goods brewing in China is part of larger crisis

BEIJING—Wang Tao said there were some items she wouldn't be putting in her shopping basket anymore.

"I won't be buying Japanese products in the future," Wang asserted Tuesday as she left a downtown shopping center that was brimming with imported goods.

A consumer boycott of Japanese-made products is taking shape in China, the result of a flare-up of frictions between China and Japan that seems to worsen by the day, and with potential to jeopardize trade and further poison relations between East Asia's largest powers.

The boycott is just one aspect of a high-voltage crisis unfolding between the countries, replete with violent protests, name-calling and demands for apologies.

The crisis leaves China's leaders with a dilemma. Faced with a restive public that's angry over a series of disputes with Japan, some historical and others current, the leaders don't want to appear weak. They seek to prod Tokyo to contrition before 60th anniversary events this summer to mark the end of World War II. Yet the prospect that unrest could spiral out of control unsettles them.

"The Chinese leaders want to send a strong message to Japan. They also understand that trying to suppress and stop these activities will make them unpopular," said Joseph Cheng, a political scientist at the City University of Hong Kong.

Thousands of student protesters in Beijing last weekend pelted Japanese restaurants, smashed cars and hurled rocks and eggs at Japan's diplomatic missions. Despite widespread vandalism, riot squads arrested no one. Protests also erupted in the southern cities of Guangzhou and Shenzhen. New anti-Japanese protests are slated for this Saturday in coastal Shanghai and the southern inland city of Guilin.

Some analysts think the anti-Japanese protests mask other grievances, such as anger at the Chinese government's sharp restrictions on Internet bulletin boards at universities, and that the government may not grasp the depth of public discontent.

Trying to keep a lid on unrest, officials are broadening censorship of anti-Japanese Web sites and blocking instant messages referring to "demonstrations."

"The Chinese government understands that nationalism is a double-edged sword," Cheng said. "This time, they (the marchers) may go out to protest against Japan. But next time, they may protest against the government."

The Chinese remain angry over Japan's brutal occupation of China's northeast from 1933 to 1945. Some also accuse the Japanese of lingering condescension toward China.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, traveling in India, said Tuesday that Japan must "face up to history squarely" and deal with its wartime past to the satisfaction of its Asian neighbors. He added that Japan should reconsider its quest for a permanent seat at the U.N. Security Council, which China opposes.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman, Qin Gang, declined to specify what actions China wants Japan to take on its wartime past, saying only "we want to see concrete deeds."

In Tokyo, Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura said Japan expected China to respond "at the earliest" to its demands for an apology for last weekend's violence. Separately, Trade Minister Shoichi Nakagawa labeled China "a terrifying country" and said he worried about anti-Japanese sentiment in China affecting Japanese companies.

Suggestions for a boycott began April 1, when the China Chain Store and Franchise Association called for "Chinese with patriotic spirit" to stop buying Japanese products made by companies that it claimed supported a recent revision of Japanese textbooks that critics say glosses over Japan's role in World War II.

Some 18,000 Japanese companies have a presence in China, including its big automakers and electronics manufacturers, such as Sony, Sharp and Hitachi. Bilateral trade hit $178 billion last year. China is Japan's largest trade partner.

About 99,100 Japanese citizens live in China, many of them in Shanghai Japanese television newscasts say many Japanese in China are uneasy.

One mother, speaking at the heavily guarded entrance to a Japanese school in Beijing, told a newscast: "I am very scared. When I go shopping, I can't talk in Japanese on the cellular phone. I try not to speak loudly."

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi reacted angrily to reports that Chinese assailants struck two Japanese men with bottles and ashtrays at a Shanghai restaurant over the weekend.

"This is really regrettable. China is responsible for the safety of the Japanese who are working in China," Koizumi said.

Protest organizers have broadened the calls for a boycott, urging Chinese to stop buying all Japanese products. While state-run media haven't carried the news, cellular-phone users have spread word of the boycott through text messages.

At an electronics store in the Buynow Shopping Center, salesman Mao Xiaolong appeared troubled by talk of a boycott.

"We can't do anything. We've already imported all these Japanese products," he said, signaling to video cameras and MP3 players in display cases.

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Emi Doi in Tokyo contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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