By NBC News’ Bo Gu
BEIJING – As the diplomatic dispute between China and Japan grows, Beijing is finding itself torn between pacifying angry nationalists and holding a hard line toward its Asian rival.
The dispute was sparked over two weeks ago when a Chinese fishing boat collided with two Japanese patrol ships near uninhabited islands claimed by both nations, as well as Taiwan, in the East China Sea. Territorial disputes over the islands, which are said to be rich fishing grounds and may have oil and gas deposits, go back to the late 19th century.
MIKE CLARKE/AFP/Getty Images
A Hong Kong activist stands in front of a Chinese flag as a group of activists sets sail on Wednesday for the disputed island chain in the East China Sea, amid an escalating row between China and Japan over the territory.
After the latest incident, Japan arrested the Chinese boat’s captain on suspicion of deliberately ramming the Japanese vessels and has refused to release him.
The diplomatic scuffle extended to New York this week when China’s Prime Minister Wen Jiabao said he would not meet with Japanese leaders on the sidelines of the United Nations gathering.
But while Beijing continues to ratchet up the diplomatic dispute, there are concerns about revving-up too much anti-Japanese sentiment at home.
Anger spills into streets
Given historic enmity, anger over the territorial dispute has already started taken on a life of its own in China.
On Sept. 18, a day remembered as the anniversary the Japan’s invasion of China 79 years ago (an early event in the Sino-Japanese conflict that eventually lead to full-blown war in 1937), dozens of Chinese demonstrators rallied outside the Japanese Embassy in Beijing and marched to the Chinese foreign ministry.
The protesters carried banners and chanted nationalistic slogans like, "Japanese, get the hell out of Diaoyu Islands!" and “Boycott Japanese goods!”
In China, protests are technically legal, but only with police consent, which makes public demonstration a rare phenomenon. The last open mass protest happened in 2005, also against Japan on the same issue.
However, out of fear that any public protest could turn chaotic or veer into anti-government rhetoric, the Chinese authorities kept the demonstration low-key and police confiscated the protestors’ banners. The China Federation of Defending Diaoyu Islands, an association focusing on researching and protecting the territory rights of the islands, denied it was involved in the protest, but its website was quickly blocked.
‘Let’s stage a war against Japan!’
Still, the Chinese authorities have not been able to control the wave of anger against Japan that has spread across the Internet.
On the popular Strong Nation Forum hosted by the People’s Daily (one of China’s biggest official newspapers), the diplomatic dispute is the most viewed news event. It also has generated comments by legions of outraged Chinese Netizens – some even proposing war.
"Why is there no Chinese military stationed on the islands?" is a frequent question. It provokes answers like, "Let’s stage a war against Japan! I’ll sacrifice my life to protect our country’s dignity."
Some have expressed the wish that Chairman Mao was still alive, arguing that he would send out troops right away. Others have called for a boycott of Japanese products and a ban on tours to Japan. (Ironically, Japan recently claimed it would ease the visa application procedure for Chinese tourists, who have become the top consumers among travelers from all over the world).
‘Nationalism is very dangerous’
Still, given the history between China and Japan, there are fears that the nationalist fervor could become combustible.
"Nationalism is very dangerous. People do have the right to demonstrate, but nationalism is different from patriotism, especially when the war legacy still overhangs from World War II," said Victor Gao, a well-known commentator based in Beijing. "We do not need to sensationalize the situation, and there’s no need to throw out nationalism. This is not doing any good to either party, China or Japan."
Gao believes the capture and arrest of the fishing trawler captain has more to do with Japan’s domestic politics and was a gesture directed at its own people in the midst of another one of Japan’s frequent cabinet shuffles.
"If I was to advise the Japanese government, they could just use any humanitarian excuse to release the captain very soon. I don’t think anyone will gain anything from this. Neither wants to have a war."