BEIJING — 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 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 descended into rock and egg-throwing 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 chaos that followed seemed to unnerve the authoritarian rulers here.
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 on 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.