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

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.