Leading article: Soft power... its uses and abuses

Related Topics

In 2005, Chinese protesters besieged the Japanese embassy in Beijing to protest against new textbooks that, in China's view, downplayed Japanese atrocities during the Second World War. At their height, the protests drew 10,000 demonstrators; there were skirmishes; the embassy was damaged, and there were times when it appeared that the police would not be able to cope.

The weeks before 4 May – the anniversary of the anti-Western movement of 1919 – have been regarded as perilous by successive Chinese governments. In 1976, disturbances followed protests against the failure of the leadership to commemorate the death of Zhou Enlai with due respect. The anniversary of that protest 13 years later sowed the seed that grew into the student revolt at Tiananmen Square.

In one significant way, however, the protests of three years ago were different. There was evidence that the protesters were summoned by the Chinese authorities, via text messages to their mobile phones. A government was using new technology to mobilise a mass movement to express displeasure with another country.

This was something new and deeply threatening. Then, though, the Government was still able to switch off what it had switched on. New messages called for the protesters to make their point "calmly and rationally". They dispersed as suddenly as they had convened.

Now, the Chinese authorities have addressed the selfsame words to a new wave of anti-Western protesters. How spontaneous their demonstrations were, however, is another matter. Their uniform banners attacked the street protests that followed the Chinese Olympic torch through Europe and the Americas. The hostility shown towards the torch relay in Paris seems to have drawn particular ire, along with President Sarkozy's equivocation about whether he will attend the opening of the Games. In recent days, protests against French interests – mostly Carrefour supermarkets – have been staged in many major Chinese cities.

It also appears, though, that the Chinese government has now put its capacity to mobilise protest on a global footing. Almost identical demonstrations in support of the Beijing Olympics and against the Free Tibet movement were staged at the weekend in Paris, London and Manchester. An internet campaign has also been launched, with a logo that supporters of the Beijing Olympics can attach to their email addresses.

So far, perhaps, so relatively harmless. A government's remote mobilisation of expatriates for the purpose of protest, however, has distinctly sinister implications. In such circumstances, "soft" power can all too quickly turn hard.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Riyadh is setting itself up as region’s policeman

Lina Khatib
Ed Miliband and David Cameron  

Cameron and Miliband should have faith in their bolder policies

Ian Birrell
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor