China's latent loathing erupts in island spat

Far East: A territorial dispute inspires patriotic fervour in Hong Kong and Taiwan, but fails to stir the emotions in Japan
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The Independent Online
STEPHEN VINES

Hong Kong

Such is the fervour now surrounding the Sino-Japanese dispute over sovereignty of a small group of islands known by the Chinese as the Diaoyus and by Japan as the Senkakus, that the smallest symbolic victory is being hailed as a great achievement.

Yesterday a handful of Chinese protesters managed to make a brief landing on the Japanese-controlled islands. There they raised the flags of both China and Taiwan before rushing to rejoin a 50-strong flotilla which set off from Taiwan with about 300 Taiwanese, Hong Kong and Macau Chinese patriots, intent on making a symbolic gesture of Chinese sovereignty over the islands.

Su Chi, a Taiwan government spokesman, hailed the landing as an "act of patriotism to protect our land". In Hong Kong, legislators rushed to praise the "heroes" of the brief excursion in the East China Sea.

The Diaoyus have become an extraordinarily powerful nationalist rallying point for Chinese people outside China - where the government is keeping a lid on demonstrations, fearing that spontaneous displays of nationalist emotion may spill over into other forms of protest.

In a weekend radio broadcast the Hong Kong legislator Fung Kin-kee said that "the tiny Diaoyu islands have woken us up from our sweet dreams". He was referring to the dream that China had "regained its political muscle" and did not need to "tolerate any snub by foreign superpowers".

Although they are uninhabited, the Diaoyus are a reminder of America's global power; Washington handed the islands to Japan in 1972 as part of a package concerning the return of Okinawa, which was then occupied by US forces.

After major protests, the issue lay dormant until last July when a group of Japanese nationalists established a symbolic lighthouse and a Japanese flag on one of the islands in order to re-assert Japanese sovereignty.

Since then protests have intensified, particularly in Hong Kong where there have been unprecedented displays of patriotic fervour. Schools throughout the territory observed a one-minute silence to protest against the Japanese occupation of the islands; the use of their Japanese name by the colony's Chief Secretary, Anson Chan, triggered an avalanche of protests, and a disc jockey took an overdose after being showered with abuse for suggesting some of the money spent on protests could have been better used.

The protests intensified after they claimed their first martyr. David Chan, a former television journalist and aspiring politician drowned after attempting to swim towards the islands after the first flotilla set sail. Chan, hitherto a despised political opportunist, had many of the colony's leading political figures at his funeral over the weekend, and his death spurred the largest rally since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

A survey of people aged between 15 and 29, published yesterday, showed that half of them believed that the Diaoyu dispute had stiffened their Chinese identity. A remarkable 40 per cent said they had taken part in protests about the islands and 37 per cent said they were boycotting Japanese products.

As well as bringing out the usually well-hidden anti-Japanese feelings, which date back to Japan's atrocities against the Chinese in the Second World War, the protests have givenoverseas Chinese communities a rare opportunity to identify with their mother country, even though most of those leading the protests are bitterly critical of the Communist government.

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