'Patriots' with different characteristics: deconstructing the Chinese anti–Japan protests in 2012

  • Spring 2015
Ketian Zhang

Ketian Zhang is a PhD student in International Relations and Comparative Politics, with a special focus on Chinese foreign policy, U.S.-China relations, and East Asian security.

By Ketian Zhang
May 1, 2015

IN AUGUST 2012, after Japanese authorities detained and deported a group of Hong Kong–based activists attempting to land on the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, which both Japan and China claim as their own territory, China erupted in anti–Japan protests.1 These initial waves of protest were quickly followed by more in September when many Chinese cities witnessed anti–Japan protests again, in response to Japan's decision to nationalize the islands.2 Some protests turned astonishingly violent, with Japanese cars smashed and Chinese car owners badly beaten. The media has attributed these protests to "nationalism gone awry" 3 and, in academia, the study of the anti–Japan protests has also been linked to nationalism. Undoubtedly, nationalism is relevant. But the notion that these protests emerged directly and singularly as a result of Chinese nationalism is a myth. Such a narrow view fails to explain the variations in people’s behavior and motives during the protests: why were some people angrily smashing cars while others actively advocating for nonviolence? What motivated Chinese citizens to participate in these protests?

In contrast to the conventional wisdom that treats the Chinese as if they were a unified, equally nationalistic group, my research finds that Chinese citizens participated in anti–Japan protests for drastically different reasons—many of which had little to do with Chinese nationalism. In this article, I review the motivations and behaviors of five types of Chinese protestors, many of whom were not motivated purely (or even primarily) by nationalism. These diverse types of participants include: (1) committed patriots: active through the entire protest wave—from organizing online activism to offline street protests—these individuals are arguably the most nationalistic of all the protestors; (2) ordinary urbanites: the young city–dwellers, some of whom were motivated by local, rather than national, allegiances; (3) anger–venters: those individuals who reacted violently and were stimulated by a combination of legitimate grievances and the emotion of crowd dynamics; (4) clever critics: those who joined the protest opportunistically to voice their criticisms of domestic policies; and (5) business interests: those entrepreneurs who saw the protests as a marketing opportunity to expand their businesses.

By examining the actual motivations and behaviors of each of these groups, my research illustrates that nationalist explanations of the recent anti–Japan protests fall short in significant ways. Instead, the anti–Japan protests included a diverse medley of people—often with opportunistic rather than nationalistic motivations—who used the official "patriotism" frame to justify their actions.4 In fact, protest participants exhibited different gradations of patriotism: at one extreme were the committed activists who devoted organizational and material resources to the cause of anti–Japan activism for a long period of time; and at the other extreme were opportunists who joined the protests for motivations that had little to do with patriotism.5



The group that appears to adhere most clearly to the nationalist explanation of the protests is the "baodiao" activists (i.e., defending the Diaoyu islands), who proved deeply motivated and committed to nationalistic, anti–Japanese rhetoric. The "baodiao" protests began on August 15th, 2012, when "baodiao" protestors gathered in front of the Japanese embassy in Beijing. This protest was organized by the China Federation for Defending the Diaoyu Islands (CFDD), chaired by the nationalistic entrepreneur Tong Zeng. This peaceful protest marked the beginning of the high tide in the anti–Japan protest wave, after which street protests erupted across Chinese cities.

Indeed, the CFDD and Tong Zeng have been consistent patriotic activists for a long period of time—according to CFDD's official website6, its history dates back to 1996 and it has been active ever since, both on and offline. During this period the CFDD has devoted organizational and material resources to the "baodiao" movement, making it one of the most influential "baodiao" organizations in China. Moreover, the CFDD has been devoting organizational, leadership, and material resources to "baodiao" activism, even in the face of challenges from the state: the authorities sometimes shut down CFDD’s website and restricted Tong’s activities, but they have continued to support the movement.7 In this way, Tong Zeng, together with the CFDD, are among the most committed patriots in the anti–Japan protests, and their use of the "patriotism" frame during the most recent wave of nationalist protests appears to be quite genuine.



Although the "baodiao" movement clearly coheres with the nationalist explanations of the anti-Japan protests, there remain a number of additional groups, who participated in the protests, but did so for largely non–nationalistic reasons. Thus, the following groups deviate from the conventional nationalism explanations in important ways.



Among the protestors during the anti–Japan protests were groups of young people working in the cities. Within these younger populations the motives and behaviors differed from other protestors significantly. With regard to motivations, anecdotal evidence from Chinese language sources suggests that some young urbanites emphasized their local allegiances rather than their national ones. For example, in Guangzhou, a Southern metropolitan area, local youth organizations did not harbor anti–Japan sentiments, but instead emphasized their love for Guangzhou, not for China. One of the organizers, Gengshu,8 wrote in his blog that a small group of colleagues who were concerned about violence printed one thousand posters of "love Guangzhou, nonviolence" and disseminated them on September 18th.9

In addition, these youngsters adhered strictly to non–violence, prioritizing non–violence as the core feature of their participation. For example, in Guangzhou, the group Genshu tried to keep the protests from becoming violent through public lobbying campaigns. Unlike Tong Zeng, they did not have charisma nor significant material input, but instead called themselves ordinary participants. Thus, both in their limited appeals to anti–Japanese sentiment and their emphasis on nonviolence, the subset of protest participants in this category differed from nationalist groups such as the CFDD.



Unlike the CFDD patriots or the ordinary urbanites, a third class of protesters, who I refer to as anger–venters, adopted the violent and extreme tactics of –beating, smashing, and looting– (da, za, qiang). But in addition to their choice of violent tactics, the motivations of this subset of protesters differed in important ways from other groups. China’s official explanation of their violent behavior identifies "opposition against social inequality" from those at the bottom of the society as the key factor for violence during the protests.10 While grievances about social inequality are highly relevant, however, this explanation is incomplete in that it fails to explain why violence took place at particular times and places.11 At the most basic level, it is true that structural factors sow the seed for anger–venting events—socioeconomic changes during the reform era resulted in redistributive inequality, social injustice, corruption, and weakening state ideology—and these factors gave rise to a group of dissatisfied people, including the unemployed, laid off workers, migrant workers, and veterans. However, it is not simply these grievances that lead to violence—this anger was ignited by the non–routine, group dynamics that were observed during the protests. Indeed, through Chinese–language reports and interviews, my preliminary findings suggest that it is not simply social grievance that motivated this sort of violence, but these social grievances compounded by crowd psychology (and delayed responses from the authorities) that induced such angry, violent outcomes.



Also in the mix of the anti–Japan protests were a group of people holding banners that conveyed criticisms about domestic politics through the clever use of allegories and sarcasm. For instance, one slogan, written by an elderly shopkeeper, was placed in front of his small shop by the protest route. It was a perfectly–rhymed poem: "no medical care, no social welfare, but [we] have the Diaoyu islands in the heart; even if the government does not provide pension, [we] still must get the Diaoyu islands back; no property rights, no human rights, on the Diaoyu islands [we] fight for sovereignty rights; even if [we] cannot afford housing or tombs, [we] will not give a single square foot of [Diaoyu] to the Japanese." This sarcastic but playful poem captured the grave problems faced by the elderly Chinese today: lack of medical care, pension, or even more sadly, the ability to afford a proper burial after one dies.12 This group was dissatisfied with the government and took the opportunity of the anti–Japan protests to voice their criticisms, but not on nationalistic grounds. The fact that they came prepared with these banners further demonstrates their determination to voice these criticisms on the street. The behavior and repertoires of these sarcastic "patriots" indicate that the official rhetoric both gives venues for dissent and limits its content: these banners conveyed criticisms about the government, but complainers still had to frame these criticisms within the official rhetoric of patriotism, indicating their acknowledgement of state domination. Like the ordinary urbanites and anger–venting groups, the clever complainers constituted another group that embedded itself in the larger anti–Japan protests for reasons notnationalistic.



The last group in the anti-Japan protest wave consists of business interests. For example, in the anti–Japan march in Hangzhou on August 19th, there was a banner that read "the Diaoyu islands are China's sacred territory and shall not be invaded!"13 At first glance, it was a most ordinary anti–Japan slogan, yet below this sentence was a blatant advertisement for the "Hangzhou website for vegetables and fruits" (Hangzhou shuguo wang), along with its URL "www.hzshuguo.com." This business, as its website suggests, was about fruits and vegetables and specialized in "online shopping, delivery, and import." 14 This online fruit company did not seem to have much conflict of economic interests with Japan—after all, Japan had very little share of vegetable sales in China and this business also imported vegetables and fruits. The banner indicated a marketing strategy instead of an expression of patriotism, or at least the former seemed to be the primary motivation.



Chinese citizens did react to Japan’s nationalization of the Senkaku islands with protests. Utilizing primary materials on the Chinese Internet and journalistic reports, however, this paper finds that the conventional theories of nationalism are inadequate in explaining the emergence and the expansion of the anti–Japan protests. The participants in these protests were not homogeneous. They differed in terms of patriotic commitment and people participated in the protests for different motivations, which led to variations in their protest repertoires.

This paper is just a beginning into the study of the most recent anti–Japan protests. There remain many crucial questions, the answers to which are important practically and theoretically and they have policy implications both for Chinese foreign policy and domestic politics. For example, if not all participants of the anti–Japan protests are nationalistic, what does it say about the alleged effects of the Chinese patriotic education campaign? What factors might affect the degree of the Chinese public’s acceptance of the patriotic indoctrination? How can the United States and Japan engage the Chinese population who is less nationalistic? The study of anti–foreign protests in general could also potentially bridge the study of social movements and international relations.



1 Keith Bradsher, "Activist Chinese Group Plans More Anti–Japan Protests," New York Times, August 20, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/21/world/asia/activist-chinese-group-plans-more-anti-japan-protests.html?_r=0

The Asahi Shimbun, September 5, 2012, http://ajw.asahi.com/article/behind_news/politics/AJ201209050013,. 

3 Amy Qin and Edward Wong, "Smashed Skull Serves as Grim Symbol of Seething Patriotism," New York Times, October 10, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/11/world/asia/xian-beating-becomes-symbol-of-nationalism-gone-awry.html?_r=0

4 I define the "patriotism" frame as official rhetoric about patriotism, which is mainly the discourse that Chinese citizens should be loyal to the country, and the Communist party, and that they should support territorial integrity of the Chinese nation. 

5 I use Neil Diamant’s criteria to define the different levels of patriotism. According to Diamant, a committed patriot should have: a certain degree of courage, andsustained action or commitment evinced through moderate to long–term commitment of resources, and sacrifice. See Neil J. Diamant, Embattled Glory: Veterans, Military Families, and the Politics of Patriotism in China, 1949–2007 (Rowman & Littlefield Pub Incorporated, 2010), p. 19., 2014) p. 23, 33.

6 Information regarding past CFDD activities comes from its official introduction at http://www.cfdd.org.cn/html/6/n-6.html

7 See, for example, Chinese Said to Detain Dissidents as Parley Nears, New York Timeshttp://www.nytimes.com/1995/08/10/world/chinese-said-to-detain-dissidents-as-parley-nears.html.

8 Gengshu is the internet name in his Sina blog. He claimed to be an NGO worker in the "signature" section. The Chinese character for the quote is "ai Guangzhou, fei baoli." Emphasis in the translation added by author. 

9 Gengshu’s blog at http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_490575cf01016myv.html. See also his censored weibo article at https://freeweibo.com/weibo/3494266947090242.

10 Office of Public Opinion Monitoring at the People’s website [Renminwang yuqing jianceshi], "Report on the Analysis of Online Public Opinions in 2012 [2012 nian zhongguo hulianwang yuqing fenxi baogao]."

11 The underclass includes migrant workers, laid off workers, the unemployed, etc. They are literally at the bottom of the society.

12 See http://tieba.baidu.com/p/1870735068. This elderly was said to be a Chengdu resident. The poem read: Mei yibao, mei shebao, xingzhong yaoyou diaoyudao; jiusuan zhengfu buyanglao, yeyao shoufu diaoyudao; meiwuquan, meirenquan, diaoyudao shang zhengzhuquan; maibuqi fang, xiubuqi fen, cuntu burang ribenren. The rhyme of the poem is lost after my poor translation.

13 See http://www.kpkpw.com/space.php?do=activity&id=29&type=kuaipai&albumid=292973 

14 Apparently, the website was accessible in April 2013, and is now under construction.