XI'AN – Protests against Japan's recent efforts to buy the disputed Diaoyu islands spread to cities across China Saturday, and in some places turned violent.
Here in Xi'an, protesters marched to the city's central intersection at the bell tower, and by the afternoon, a large crowd had begun to amass in front of the Bell Tower Hotel, one of the city's upscale hotels. A mob of people had smashed the windows of the hotel and were hurling bottles and other hard objects at police who had gathered to block access to the hotel.
According to a high school student who had joined the protests and would only give her English name Kristen, some of the protesters had attacked the hotel because there were Japanese staying inside. It was not clear who the guests were or if they were being kept inside for their safety. Some of the protesters had been arrested, according to the girl, and a sign hung on the hotel's entrance read "release the prisoners." She told me that while she had joined the protests because she was interested to take part, she was very disappointed in the violence that was happening, calling it "useless and not productive."
At around 6:30 p.m. riot control troops and military police, or Wujing, forces were marching towards the bell tower to restore order. According to posts on popular microblog service weibo, troops had also been positioned at the gates of the city's ancient wall, blocking cars from entering the city center. An "emergency" text sent out to all citizens by the provincial government, told citizens, "Continue to oppose the Japanese government's illegal purchase of the Diaoyu Islands, and our leaders will not yield, but please rationally express patriotic feelings and avoid extreme behavior." Later in the evening another official text was sent out urging all residents to stay inside, due to "traffic jams". The provincial education bureau announced universities in Xi'an are on curfew and lockdown indefinitely.
Anti-Japanese protests, unlike other types of public gathering in China, are generally allowed and probably encouraged by a government who is willing to allow a valve to vent public frustration. There were even some reports on Chinese websites that the police chief of Xi'an was leading some of the protests.
But the arrest of demonstrators and the decision to call in security forces in Xi'an showed that when things get out of control, authorities are just as willing to call in troops to restrain order. By and large, most people protesting were peaceful, waving Chinese flags and a few holding signs to encourage boycotts of Japanese goods. Around the city, Japanese-made cars were destroyed and turned over, passing crowds gathering at times to take photos using their iPhones.
These protests come amidst one of the worst phases of China-Japan relations in years. Japan recently purchased the disputed islands in the East China sea from a private family. Chinese patrol ships were sent in yesterday off the coast of the islands. The protests also come in the wake of next month's 18th Communist Party Congress leadership transition. The protests could have the effect of displaying national unity in an uncertain transition time, but leaders are certainly wary about protests getting out of control or even turning against the government.