China's foreign minister called Tuesday for an end to anti-Japanese protests, the first signal that the leadership may no longer welcome the sometimes violent demonstrations that have underpinned a new and more confrontational approach to Japan.
The minister, Li Zhaoxing, told a meeting of the Communist Party's propaganda department attended by 3,500 people that government, military and party officials, as well as "the masses," should stay off the streets, state media reported.
"Cadres and the masses must believe in the party and the government's ability to properly handle all issues linked to Sino-Japanese relations," Mr. Li was quoted as saying. "Calmly, rationally and legally express your own views. Do not attend marches that have not been approved. Do not do anything that might upset social stability."
The big test of the order will come next week. Urban residents have been sending text and e-mail messages to one another calling for major marches on May 1, China's traditional Labor Day, and on May 4.
May 4 is significant in Chinese history because it is the anniversary of the first major student-led nationalist uprising, in 1919. Popular outrage over the Versailles Treaty, which gave German-controlled territory in China to Japan after World War I, sparked that protest.
Authorities generally step up surveillance and harassment of critics of the government on such anniversaries to guard against unrest.
(I wrote about the historical background of May 4th at length here, for those curious)
It's tempting to look for historical parallels here, and I have no doubt that the demonstration's organizers are well aware of the resonances and are invoking them deliberately.On the other side, the last thing the Chinese government wants is to clash with students on May 4th, a date they claim as significant in the founding of the CCP. Whether today's students are willing to risk what the original May 4th students did (or their counterparts in 1989, for that matter) remains to be seen. Today's Chinese government, whatever its deficiencies, is not the warlord government of 1919, and the Japanese are not colonizing Manchuria. China's capitalists, technocrats and emerging middle class have a lot to lose in any serious break with Japan, as do many ordinary Chinese workers. But as one commentator pointed out (and if I could remember who this was, I'd certainly link to him/her), China's students are not necessarily the stakeholders with at-risk investments here. Many come from less than affluent backgrounds; all face heavy competition for employment and a great deal of economic uncertainty. Maybe they are angry enough, regardless of how misdirected their anger might be, to hit the streets again come May 4th.
If I had to bet, I'd say they won't. But I sure wouldn't bet the farm on it.