Panicked China reins in rioters as anti-Japanese protests spread

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The Independent Online

After a week of megaphone diplomacy that stretched ties between China and Japan to breaking point by disputes about history and territory, Beijing has cracked down on anti-Japanese protesters in an apparent attempt to defuse a movement it fears could spiral out of control.

After a week of megaphone diplomacy that stretched ties between China and Japan to breaking point by disputes about history and territory, Beijing has cracked down on anti-Japanese protesters in an apparent attempt to defuse a movement it fears could spiral out of control.

Beijing authorities said any attempt to repeat last weekend's attacks on the Japanese embassy and Japanese-owned property which have brought relations between the two Asian giants to their lowest point since normalisation in 1972, would be "considered illegal behaviour".

A government spokes-man said: "We hope people and young students can trust that the party and the government can properly deal with Sino-Japan relations ... and do not do anything that will affect social stability and hurt the capital's image."

The demonstrations were caused by Japan's authorisation of school textbooks that many Chinese believe gloss over its occupation of the country in the 1930 and 1940s.

The British and other governments pushed to persuade China to quell the protests before they got out of hand. Washington is among several governments this weekend warning its citizens in China to be careful. A US government statement said: "The demonstrations are purportedly against Japanese interests, but could involve foreigners in general." The UN secretary general Kofi Annan said: "I hope this will be handled in a manner that will not escalate."

Many suspect last weekend's protests were condoned by Beijing; TV pictures showed Chinese policemen looking on as the protesters rioted, and Japanese students who were beaten in Shanghai have said police officers ignored or cursed them as they were being chased through the streets.

"The demo was given a green light by the government but was much bigger than they expected," said Tetsuro Kato, professor of politics at Tokyo's Hitotsubashi university. "The energy from anti-Japanese demonstrations could be directed toward the government. The state can smash these demonstrations in big cities but if they spread outside they will be very difficult to control."

But even as China tried to dampen anti-Japanese sentiment, websites such as japanpigs.com celebrated the weekend riots and promised a repeat performance; dozens of cyber attacks continued on government websites and many Japanese corporations have reported harassment calls and threats.

Anti-Japanese activists have been further incensed by a badly timed decision by Tokyo to allow test drilling for gas and oil in a disputed area of the East China Sea, a move Beijing called "a serious provocation". Japan's national newspaper Asahi said co-operation on oil and gas production made more economic sense than going it alone, and that it offered both sides an opportunity to reconcile differences "between adults".

In the southern city of Guangzhou, Japanese businesses and civic groups have been discussing how to protect themselves should riots break out again, and several Japanese consulates have issued warnings to ex-pats to "keep a low profile" until tension eases. "It's very scary," a Japanese woman told Japan's state broadcaster NHK. "If this continues we may have to return home."

China's refusal to apologise, and a midweek lecture by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao telling Japan to "face up to history," earned the wrath of Japan's Foreign Minister, Nobutaka Machi-mura. "The violence can never be excused, whatever the reason," he said. "By showing tolerance the Chinese government is effectively admitting it condones violent behaviour."

Mr Machimura will meet China's Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing in Beijing this weekend to try to calm tensions, but with Tokyo refusing to back down on the drilling rights in an area hotly disputed by both sides and with the stage set for a battle over whether Japanese schools will use the disputed textbooks, he will have his work cut out.

Japan's foreign office has urged the government to make the most of the "UN reform momentum" to win permanent membership in the Security Council, now considered highly unlikely, thanks to Beijing's veto. One Japanese TV commentator called Tokyo's UN campaign "whistling in the wind".

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