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Beijing now worried anti-Japan protests could backfire

The Chinese government has given the first sign that it might be nervous that a continuing series of anti-Japanese demonstrations could lead protesters to turn on the Chinese authorities instead of Tokyo.

At a demonstration in Baoji, Shaanxi province on Saturday, demonstrators did not just call for the government to get tougher with Japan in its territorial dispute over a string of islands in the East China Sea.

Some also unfurled banners calling for a multiparty political system and complaining about the high price of real estate, according to images shown on Japanese TV.

China’s top law and order official, Zhou Yongkang, said the government should “strengthen propaganda and opinion work to guide the public to voice its patriotic aspirations in a rational and orderly way according to the law, protecting social and political stability,” according to a report in today’s  People’s Daily, the official organ of the ruling Communist party.

Though only a few hundred protesters turned out Saturday in Baoji, the demands some of them made publicly showed that once the authorities allow Chinese citizens to march on the streets, their feelings can easily run over into prohibited territory.

Beijing and Tokyo resolved a crisis in their relationship earlier this month when Japan returned a Chinese fisherman accused of ramming Japanese patrol boats, after 10 days of detention.

Anti-Japanese protests, tolerated by the government, have rumbled on, however, in cities in China’s interior, largely organized over instant messaging networks on cell phones. Calls for more such demonstrations have appeared on the Internet.

Tens of thousands of spontaneous protests, known as “mass incidents” break out across China every year, according to official figures. They are often staged by peasant farmers in disputes with local authorities seeking to confiscate their land and sell it to developers.

Such demonstrations are not sanctioned by the government, however, and are generally dispersed quickly.

The recent anti-Japanese demonstrations, however, like similar but larger protests five years ago, clearly have at least the passive blessing of the authorities, anxious to let nationalists let off steam under the watchful but restrained eye of the police.

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