The Chinese government took steps Tuesday to quell at least for now a troubling spike in domestic political tumult, tightly controlling anti-Japanese protests that over the weekend had threatened to spin out of control and concluding the highly-sensitive trial of a former police chief tied to the biggest political scandal the country has seen in decades.
The waves of thousands of demonstrators who showed up at the Japanese embassy in Beijing were closely corralled, providing no repeat of the demonstrations Saturday in dozens of cities that included rock and egg-throwing and arson in melees that commentators described as the most serious anti-Japan protests since the two countries normalized relations in 1972.
Beijing is furious that the Japanese government announced last week that it had bought three islands in an uninhabited chain that both nations claim, and the weekend demonstrations were almost certainly state-sanctioned. But the hints of chaos that followed seemed to worry China's authoritarian rulers.
Whether the weekend protests came from factional rivalries, worries about looking complacent in the aftermath of Tokyo’s move, a desire to send Japan a warning, or just a confluence of nationalist fury, it was obvious on Tuesday that Beijing had drawn at least a temporary line. The day marked a particularly sensitive anniversary in the annals of Chinese animosity toward its neighbor, a Sept. 18, 1931, incident used by Japan as pretext for invading China.
Long columns of police manned the road. Packs of protesters were escorted forward and then allowed to pause in front of the embassy where they threw plastic bottles, fruit and the like. They chanted obscenities directed toward the Japanese, their nation and their mothers. The groups then moved along so the next could do the same.
Loudspeakers mounted in the trees broadcast a looped message that while it was reasonable for people to express their feelings about Japan, they should do so “rationally.” After a call-and-response about taking back the contested islands, known as the Diaoyu in China and the Senkaku in Japan, one man with microphone in hand reminded his flock of the importance of obeying orders.
There were many large posters of Mao Zedong in the crowd, and the comments of some onlookers pointed to the tightrope walked by an authoritarian government that doesn’t want to appear weak at home. “Back in that time” – Mao’s – “they would have adopted a different method for dealing with the Japanese behavior,” said one 35-year-old man, who gave only his surname, Xu.
Speculation spread in the past few days that the unruly outbursts, which included the torching of some Japanese businesses, had initially been allowed as part of palace intrigue in the run-up to a Chinese Communist Party congress later this year that will usher in a transition of national leadership.
The notion that one faction would seek to rattle the other by street politics didn’t seem out of the question given the tumultuous nature of Chinese politics this year.
In the southwest city of Chengdu on Tuesday, a court ended the second and final day of the trial of Wang Lijun, the former police chief and vice mayor of the sprawling metropolis of Chongqing. Wang’s unsanctioned overnight trip to a U.S. Consulate in February took down the political career of Chongqing’s then-Communist Party secretary, Bo Xilai, who until that point had been viewed as a leading candidate for the Politburo Standing Committee, the center of ruling power here.
Wang reportedly passed on to the Americans information about Bo’s wife being involved in the murder of a British businessman the prior November. The wife, Gu Kailai, was last month sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve that will probably be converted to a lengthy prison term. So far, Bo has not been charged with a crime and he’s not been publicly mentioned in connection with either the Gu or Wang trial.
State TV footage on Tuesday showed Wang entering the courtroom, which was off limits to foreign media, in a short-sleeve white collared shirt and black-rimmed glasses. He’d faced charges of defection and abuse of power the day before in a secretive closed-door hearing. On Tuesday, with cameras showing an audience, the “open” court session considered crimes including taking bribes and “bending the law for selfish ends,” according to the state Xinhua newswire.
State media reports suggested that the court will show leniency to Wang, who looked comfortable in the short televised clip and reportedly did not contest his charges, and that he’ll avoid the death penalty.
After listing his alleged transgressions -- covering up the fact that Gu was a suspect in killing the businessman, having “defected to another country’s consulate,” conducting illegal surveillance and receiving more than $480,000 in bribes – Xinhua paraphrased prosecutors as saying that Wang helped with “cracking the case” of Gu’s crime.
Xinhua went on to report that after turning himself in from the U.S. Consulate and confessing all, Wang, “produced important clues for exposing serious offences committed by others and played a key part in the investigation of these cases. This can be considered as performing major meritorious services, prosecutors said in the indictment paper.”
It was not clear whether any of those cases involved Bo Xilai. To date, Xinhua has only reported, in April, that he was “suspected of being involved in serious discipline violations.”