Anti-Japanese Protests – In the Thick of it

Standing in the seething mass of angry people on Tianhe Road in Guangzhou on Tuesday afternoon, it’s easy to see not only the fervour and strength of resentment of many Chinese toward Japan, but also many clues that this whole series of protests had the full support of people much higher up the ladder…

Anti-Japanese protests, Guangzhou

Protesters chant pro-Chinese and anti Japanese slogans, such as “All Chinese unite to fight” and “Little Japanese devils piss off”

Around two o’clock on Tuesday afternoon, much of the city had come to a standstill. Some of the main arterial roads of the city were shut down, with traffic reidrected for the entire afternoon, and that began long before a single protester even appeared. The city had created a traffic-free zone roughly four kilometers long specifically for the protesters to march along between the Garden Hotel – which houses the Japanese Consulate – and Teemall, which is a major shopping centre in Guangzhou that is home to a prominent Japanese department store called Jusco.

Anti-Japanese Protests, Guangzhou

Guangzhou Avenue is a major motorway linking the north and south districts of Guangzhou. Along with this one, part of the major ring road (Huanshi Lu) and Tianhe Road – key thoroughfare for most east-west travelling bus services – were also shut down

The police and paramilitary presence was strong, and barricades had been set up, guiding the protesters in a loop so that they would return to the Garden Hotel once they felt their point had been made, rather than ransacking the Jusco (as perhaps some protesters had intended). Many other Chinese also turned up either to show their support for the protesters, or to simply snap some interesting shots to post on Weibo, the Chinese microblog site (Twitter is blocked in China)

Anti-Japanese protests, Guangzhou

Barricades were set up at the end of the thoroughfare created for the protesters, with rows of paramilitary police behind whom stood yet more rows of regular police officers.

Anti-Japanese protests, Guangzhou

Paramilitary police stand stone-faced against the encroaching protesters. It is likely many of them were highly sympathetic to the views of the protesters.

To applause and cheers from onlookers, the protesters emerged over a crest in the distance, marching along the empty motorway toward the end of the thoroughfare created for them just outside Teemall. There were large numbers, although it wasn’t initially apparent, as they did not march as one cohesive unit, but rather dribbled in batch by batch.

Anti-Japanese protests, Guangzhou

The frontline of protesters appears in the distance as the crowd bursts into a round of applause in support of their comrades

What they lacked in organisation (not exactly a Chinese strength, after all), they made up for in enthusiasm. Gradually they all made their way to the blockade and began to unify and chant as the numbers grew.

Anti-Japanese protests, Guangzhou

Some of the protesters. The headband says “Japanese get out!”

Anti-Japanese protests, Guangzhou

Some protesters carried pictures of Mao Zedong, sending somewhat of a neo-nationalistic message. Many blamed the current government for being weak in its dealings with Japan and expressed a desire to return to the “good old days” of the first four Chinese leaders from Mao to Deng Xiaoping.

Anti-Japanese protests, Guangzhou

More protesters. The most passionate were generally males, and although there were also a large number of female protesters, it seems many of them had just tagged along with their boyfriend, as most didn’t demonstrate the same kind of fervour.

Anti-Japanese protests, Guangzhou

One of the protesters somehow got his hands on one of the megaphones used by police to manage the protesters and started chanting back at them with it.

Most protesters were fairly peaceful, despite their message filled with hate, but as the afternoon progressed, things looked as though they might get ugly. Some of the more aggressive protesters tried to whip the crowd into a frenzy and start pushing the security forces back, eventually breaking through, perhaps to begin a destructive rampage in the Japanese-owned Jusco department store. It came to the point where there was a very real risk that those at the front may be crushed between surging protesters from behind and barricades held in place by the hundreds of paramilitary officers. Some protesters started moving away the barricades so that there was nothing between them and the paramilitary police. Thankfully the zealous ones were a vast minority, and the threat vanished as quickly as it had appeared. The situation was also helped by a plain-clothed mediator who looked like one of the protesters, but was obviously appointed by the security forces to guide proceedings and keep the peace as much as possible. He did a good job.

Anti-Japanese protests, Guangzhou

One of the more aggressive protesters who tried to stir up the group to push forward, crying “advance advance advance!”. Thankfully most people ignored the zealots.

Anti-Japanese protests, Guangzhou

This is the man who helped keep the peace during the protests. This is when risk of people being crushed was a very real threat, and he is imploring them to move back.

Anti-Japanese protests, Guangzhou

The two sides met, and thankfully rationality somehow prevailed and (for once) things REALLY went without incident (not just reported as having done so). After all, with the level of organisation these protests demonstrated, it was clear there was only really ONE side.

Anti-Japanese protests, Guangzhou

For a brief time, the barriers were pulled away, and the risk of things taking a turn for the worse looked very real. Surprisingly, as guided by the mediator, it was members of the protest group themselves who replaced the barricades. I’m not sure if they were planted, or if it was out of an understanding that their position was going downhill that motivated them to re-distance themselves from the security forces.

After an hour or so, the protesters turned back and returned to the Garden Hotel, where they had been two days previously. From that point on, the movement lost momentum and things went back to normal. Maybe they really listened to the announcement broadcast over police loudspeakers at the key protest locations: “You’ve made your point, we understand your patriotic expression, stay controlled and go back”.

Anti-Japanese protests, Guangzhou

The frontline of protesters marching back along the closed Huanshi Dong Road toward the Garden Hotel.

On a personal note…

I was surprised at how “civilised” the protesters were in general (Guangzhou is pushing a lot of propaganda about being a “civilised city” these days, and I am daily amazed at how untrue that claim seems to be – even if not the majority, there are still many people who don’t act in such a way). But as I made my way through the crowds, they were actually quite orderly and respectful of not only each other, but me, and outsider. Of course I had covered the “Canon” logo on my camera with a Chinese sticker, but still…

It would have been different if I had not been an Aussie, though. Many asked where I was from, and I had thought they were just being friendly, but I later found out that they had found an American in the crowd, and the protesters turned on him and “made it clear he wasn’t welcome”. I can only imagine if violence was involved. They are antagonistic towards Americans, as they see America as taking sides with Japan. I did not express my personal opinions on the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands issue, but rather said “Australians are not so fond of America either”, and suddenly I was their best friend (please don’t be offended by that if you’re American, I’m just talking about the kind of thing that even many Americans protest about – it’s government decisions, not the American people I refer to).

There were some things I saw that really inspired me, but others that made me feel a depth of despair, and lack of hope for the Chinese as a people. More on that in subsequent posts. Subscribe to my blog (or “Follow” me) for the next installment…

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