China: Protests against Japan reveal much deeper social malaise

In August and September Japan’s manoeuvres of the disputed islands of Diaoyu provoked some of the largest demonstrations in China since the uprising of Tiananmen Square in 1989. The dispute over the islands is predominantly an imperialist conflict over control of trade routes and oil resources. However, the protests in China went beyond the level of expressing anti-Japanese sentiment. In fact, although the government did attempt to limit them to this, the protests were as much against the regime in Beijing as against Japan’s aggressive manoeuvres.

In the world media the demonstrations against Japan have in general been portrayed as government sponsored and in support of the Chinese government against Japan. But this only gives part of the picture. While the government did undoubtedly try to use the protests for their own purposes and allowed the protests to go further than it would normally do, this was only for a period and only to a certain degree.

Reports suggest that the original organisers of the first protests were not the regime but came mainly from the so-called “New Left” of China. The New Left of China is a common term used for Marxist, neo-Maoist and other revolutionary and radical left groups in China critical of the restoration of capitalism and the liberalisation policy of former president Deng Xiaoping and his followers.

For example, members of the group Wuyouzhixiang were reported to have been involved in the organising of the first protests in Beijing. Wuyouzhixiang is a neo-Maoist group who until recently ran a debate website for part of the New Left in China. The group was recently banned as part of the campaign against the left-wing supporters of former Communist Party leader Bo Xilai, who many saw as a leftist renewer of policies from the Mao era (although that is clearly not what Bo stands for, far from it!).

Wuyouzhixiang is clearly not a group backed by the regime or a group who could be described as regime supporters. Of course, this example alone does not prove in itself that the protests were not regime friendly. But the conduct of the demonstrators is proof enough. In several cities they came to minor or major confrontations with the riot police. In Shenzhen in southern China the protests were especially intensive and had an attitude clearly critical of the regime. As such, a demonstration on the 16th September came to violent clashes between the riot police and 2000 protesters, when protesters attacked first a local office of the Communist Party and later a Japanese mall[i].

Attacks on the Communist Party for its “lack of patriotism”

The attack on the Communist Party office came after demonstrators saw a Japanese car in the parking lot in front of the office. Already many protesters were angry at the police for defending Japanese companies and arresting nationalist activists. The protesters began accusing police and government representatives for not being patriotic enough, preferring to defend Japanese economic interests rather than Chinese national sovereignty. While such outcries may appear as nothing more than extreme chauvinism we must understand the deeper political motivations behind them.

Officially the Chinese government and Communist Party make a big effort to present themselves as patriotic and to show that they are defending the national interests of China. The national struggle of China has been one of the major political forces for more than a century, beginning with the struggle against imperialist and colonial aggression against China in the opium wars. The Chinese revolutions of 1925-7 and 1949 were to a large degree struggles for national liberation. Especially the latter part of the revolutionary movement was to a large degree directed against Japanese and western occupation of eastern China.

The enormous crimes imperialist Japan committed against the people of China during the second Sino-Japanese war from 1937-1945 were monstrous, costing possibly as much as 22 million civilian lives. These crimes have not been forgotten, especially since Japan has continuously refused to give any real apology for the crimes, or provide compensation to the victims or to take a clear stand against this part of its history. For example, the former Japanese Prime Minister and current opposition leader Shinzō Abe has visited the Yasukuni Shrine, which pays homage to convicted Japanese war criminals on several occasions, the last one this.

Abe has stated that he wants to water down a 1995 statement by the Prime Minister, Tomiichi Murayama, apologising for Japan's wartime aggression, and to withdraw a 1993 apology for the use of Korean women as sex slaves before and during the war. That Japan was also used as a tool for imperialist aggression against “communist” China during the Cold War doesn’t make matters any better; nor does the military involvement of the USA on the side of Japan in the conflict, which further strengthened the opinion that China is once again under attack from its old imperialist slave masters.

In this light it’s not hard to understand why many Chinese feel a hatred for Japanese aggression. They expect their so-called patriotic government to defend what they feel is part of their country and to demand respect from China’s old slave masters. But what do they find? A government keen to cooperate with Japanese businesses when it suits their own private economic interests, while preaching patriotism to the people. While officially huffing and puffing against Japan, the same leaders buy Japanese luxury goods in private. This attitude reeks of hypocrisy to many ordinary Chinese and doesn’t do any good for the authority of the regime in the eyes of the people.

Social protests brewing

It is important to understand that class struggle and political radicalism isn’t always expressed in the same way. In countries where there is no strong independent labour movement, and China is such a country today, and no focus for channelling dissatisfaction, this will often find other channels through which to express itself. This is exactly what has happened in China recently. The inability of the Chinese government to defend territory to which it claims sovereignty was unacceptable to many ordinary Chinese, who in this conflict saw a reminiscence of the humiliation of China by its imperialist competitors, especially Japan, in pre-revolutionary times.

The obvious lack of patriotism expressed by members of the Chinese government was just one provocation too many. Social unrest is brewing in China after decades of high economic growth which, however, has not reduced the gap between the rich and the poor; on the contrary, in the last twenty years polarisation of wealth has massively increased. In many provinces – and in the cities – corruption has been growing out of control and government bureaucrats have been selling off local community land and properties, further deteriorating the living conditions of the population. Pollution is becoming a problem which is getting out of control as the government does little to limit the expansion of toxic industrial plants.

This has led to several outbreaks of radical class struggle and social unrest in the last couple of years. In Wukan the local population defeated the police in open combat and threw them out as they protested against the illegal selling of their land by local government bureaucrats. And in Ningbo week long protests against dangerous pollution forced the local government to retreat. In both places social uprisings won major victories against the regime and the new Chinese capitalist class.

This general feeling of the situation not being right was a strong motivation behind the protests against Japan, as people saw the failure of the regime to produce real results. As this lack of results and lack of patriotism became more and more obvious the protests turned more critical. The mass show of Chinese flags and pictures of Chairman Mao has been seen as an example of government support by many observers, but this reveals a lack of understanding of what it really means. The flag of China is not just the flag of the nation, it’s also the flag of the Chinese revolution and Mao was the leader of that revolution and not just a symbol of the regime – a revolution which seems to have less and less to do with the China of today.


Red Chinese flags have been appearing in large numbers in many social protests, for example in Ningbo, and pictures of Mao are often carried in strikes against the government and private capitalists. This has also been the case in the protests against Japan. As previously mentioned, the Maoist revolution was also a war of liberation against Japan. As such, Maoism is seen by many as the only policy that can truly defend China against foreign aggression in opposition to the current pro-capitalist policies of the regime. In Shanghai, during a demonstration on the 16th September, a young demonstrator with a picture of Mao shouted: “It is unforgivable that the Chinese government is so weak-kneed. Only Mao Zedong's ideology can topple Japan's imperialism." This is clearly a criticism of the current capitalist regime of China and an example of the true nature of these protests.

The significance of the display of Maoist propaganda was clearly explained in an article by The Asahi Shimbun in which they wrote: “One factor behind the recent revival of Mao is the dissatisfaction with the economic reform and open-door policy that was started by Deng Xiaoping after Mao's death in 1976, and has been continued by the current leadership.” In the same article they pointed out that, “Moreover, there was little reference to Mao during similar anti-Japanese protests in 2005 and 2010.” This points to the different character of the recent protests[ii].

While we may understand that there is basically no fundamental difference between Japanese imperialism and Chinese imperialism, this doesn’t mean that ordinary Chinese people see it that way. The movement in Japan in connection to the disputed islands has been utterly and completely right-wing chauvinist and pro-imperialist, but this was not the case in China. On the contrary many Chinese saw this as a fight against imperialism. This can be seen not only by the above examples in this article but in many more cases.

In Shenzhen for example, the main slogan of the 19th August demonstrations was "Smash Japanese Imperialism" and many protesters made comparisons to the crimes of Japan during the occupation of eastern China. It is no coincidence that the demonstrations reached their peak with protests in more than 180 cities around China on 18th September, the anniversary of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931.

A dangerous situation for the regime in Beijing

Originally the Chinese regime saw some potential in the protests and in creating a nationalist mood around the disputed islands. As such it was the Chinese navy who allowed boats from Hong Kong to arrive at the islands and dispute Japanese claims over them, even though the Chinese regime knew that this would further escalate the situation. But not only this, the Hong Kong campaign was to a certain degree financed by leaders of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), the governing party of Hong Kong and a close ally of the regime in Beijing.

However, they could not control the situation. Not only did new left groups take over the organisation of many of the protests from a very early point, but many other regime critical groups began to join the protests. Left-wing supporters of Bo Xilai became a common sight at many protests, as did banners against corruption, inequality and in favour of food security. In some areas the protests even escalated into open class conflicts, as with the case of four strikes in Japanese factories in Guangdong and Shenzhen.

As said earlier, in a situation without a strong independent workers’ movement to channel dissatisfaction, this will find other channels. When the regime allowed people to take to the streets to protest against Japanese imperialist aggression, people began using this to organise a more general protest against everything that is wrong with China today – a situation that became increasingly difficult to control and increasingly dangerous for the regime. In the end it could no longer be tolerated, and the government was forced to use all its powers against the protesters.

Already on the 17th September the police in Xi’an had banned large protests and forbidden the use of phone and online messages to organise protests. In Shanghai paramilitary troops provided round-the-clock protection to the Japanese consulate for the duration of the week, stripping demonstrators of projectiles, warning them through megaphones against violence and limiting protests in front of the consulate to a few minutes. In Guangdong local governments warned citizens against assembling in large crowds[iii].

On the 19th September the limit had been overstepped. National authorities sent in riot police to suppress existing protests and prevent the recurrence of new ones and arrested many organisers of the protests. In Beijing the local authorities closed down all train stations close to protest sites; roads were reopened to traffic in order to make marches impossible and Beijing-wide text messages warned citizens against further demonstrations. Police stations across the country vowed retribution against rioters and China's Commerce Ministry urged foreign companies to report damage to the authorities. This showed clearly that the regime didn't want the protests to continue, and with good reason.

A sign of what is to come

The regime in Beijing is finding that it is sitting on a powder keg that could explode at any moment. The security around the recent party conference is the tightest ever. The selling of toy planes has been restricted. Taxis have been ordered to remove handles for rolling down the windows in order to prevent the distribution of leaflets through them; pigeon owners have been ordered to keep their pigeons indoors during the conference and the selling of kitchen knives and pencil sharpeners have been temporarily forbidden. For the first time in modern Chinese history, the state is using more resources on internal security than on external. The regime is afraid, very afraid. They saw what happened in the Middle East and feared it would spread to Eastern Asia. They see social unrest spreading over the country, an intense growth in labour strikes, anti-pollution movements and peasant uprisings, not to mention the national conflicts in Tibet and in the regions of the Uigur minority as well as the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Also in Hong Kong the September election revealed a large turn to the left as well as considerable gains for the left-wing parties and workers’ organisations.

What is missing is a focal point for these protests, a generalisation into a broader struggle against the restoration of capitalism in China and against the bureaucratic dictatorship. In a way, the protests against Japanese imperialism provided such a focal point, although in a distorted fashion. The regime understood this and stopped the movement from developing further, preferring to be humiliated by Japanese imperialism rather than facing anti-imperialist and social movements at home. The protests show us what lies ahead in the future in China. Things can’t continue in this way forever.

At some point, something will break, some episode – this could be an otherwise insignificant event or a major issue – will provide a focal point and direct a general movement against the regime. This was what happened in the Middle East. The self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia was not an extraordinary event and not the first of its kind. Yet it was the last drop that made the cup run over and revolution broke out in an entire region. When such an event will happen cannot be predicted in advance, but the recent movement reveals that it could come much earlier than expected. One thing we can be sure of, however. When the masses of China once again rise in revolution, no power on earth will be able to hold them down.

[i] The Asahi Shimbun: Police had hands full controlling protesters in Shenzhen (

[ii] The Asahi Shimbun: INSIGHT: Mao references in anti-Japan protests a concern for Chinese authorities (

[iii] South China Morning Post: Beijing threatens to clamp down on anti-Japan protests (

All internet sources last tjecked the 5th November 2012.