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Orchestrated anti-Japanese protests rose, fizzled quickly in China

BEIJING—Anti-Japanese protests in China have fizzled as abruptly as they erupted a month ago.

Stern security warnings scuttled two demonstrations this week, and an announced boycott of Japanese products has lost momentum.

Spontaneous nationalist anger helped ignite the anti-Japanese movement and draw thousands of angry people onto urban streets. But Chinese authorities orchestrated the intensity and duration of the protests, then squelched them with blunt warnings issued through cellular phone text messages.

Japan is particularly unpopular because of its brutal occupation of large parts of China in the 1930s and ཤs. The Chinese government from time to time lets its people vent nationalist anger, and then abruptly turns the protests off, a sign that it's in charge.

"They were very confident," said Liu Xiaobo, a dissident who writes social commentary. "Otherwise they wouldn't have let it happen. They felt it was under control."

The protests made international headlines after as many as 10,000 young people marched through Beijing streets on April 9. Some rowdy protesters overturned Japanese cars, tossed rocks at sushi bars and smashed the windows of Japanese diplomatic installations with bottles and rocks. Subsequent protests drew throngs into the streets of Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Shenyang, Hangzhou and in Shanghai, China's commercial heart.

A series of events sparked the anti-Japanese protests, including Beijing's fierce opposition to Japan's bid to gain a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. Many Chinese also felt outrage that a recent Japanese revision of a school textbook didn't provide a full account of Japanese World War II atrocities.

Communist Party officials and anti-Japanese protest leaders initially asserted that the major urban protests were spur-of-the-moment expressions of popular indignation.

A veteran anti-Japanese crusader, Lu Yunfei, said the fact that marchers dared to carry banners with varying messages and shout impromptu slogans was proof that the protests were spontaneous.

Lu, a 29-year-old leader of the China Patriots Alliance, said police always have tightly controlled such matters before allowing anti-Japanese protests in past years.

As the organizer of a dozen or so small-scale demonstrations in 2003 and 2004, Lu said, "We provided the police with the names of the people participating and the slogans we would use."

But a civil rights lawyer, Zhang Xingshui, said the appearance of spontaneity didn't mean that authorities had loosened their grip on the anti-Japanese protests.

"This is a characteristic of demonstrations in China," Zhang said. "On one hand, (the government) tries to guide the emotions of the masses. On the other hand, it tries to control the demonstrations within limits. For instance, how many people take part, the timing, who takes part and so on."

China's communist leaders have viewed disorder in the streets with deep unease since the much bigger pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989. The Chinese military ended those protests with massive bloodshed on June 4, 1989.

In the latest demonstrations, plainclothes security personnel mingled with protesters during the marches, and in Shenzhen, the factory city near Hong Kong, unidentified men handed protesters small Chinese flags to wave and stickers to wear. Riot police accompanied the march like parade marshals even as marchers tore down billboards and threw bottles.

As much of Asia viewed the worsening China-Japan tensions with concern, a party-controlled Shanghai newspaper, Liberation Daily, published a commentary on April 25 calling the protests an "evil plot" and labeling them illegal. "It was not the people's spontaneous action," the daily said. "There was a conspiracy behind the scenes."

The unsigned commentary triggered speculation that the party leadership was divided, and that the orchestrated protests were a proxy for unseen political battles.

In the days leading up to May 1 and 4, when anti-Japanese Web sites said there'd be protests in Shanghai and Beijing, local public security bureaus sent out stern messages to all cellular phone subscribers announcing that protests were forbidden. Authorities issued the warning on the same text messaging system that had informed people of the marches, in some cases through anonymous messages.

The police presence in Beijing's Tiananmen Square was heavy on Wednesday, the anniversary of the May 4 Movement of 1919, which began with a student protest of a post-World War I peace treaty provision that gave Japan former German concessions in China.

No anti-Japanese protesters were visible in Beijing on the anniversary.

Moreover, a ballyhooed grass-roots call for a monthlong boycott of Japanese goods has ebbed. Liu, the writer, said he believes that senior officials felt they'd sent a strong enough message to Japan with the street protests, and put out the message that a boycott would cause damage to both sides.

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

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