BEIJING--A man thought to have ripped a Japanese national flag from the car of Japan's ambassador after forcing it to stop is now being questioned by Beijing authorities, as China tries to keep a lid on boiling anti-Japan sentiment.
The Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau informally confirmed the detention in a private message to embassy staff, sources told The Asahi Shimbun on Aug. 29.
Beijing authorities said the incident remains under investigation and no decision had been reached on whether an arrest warrant would be issued.
Observers believe the government of President Hu Jintao will make a final, political decision on whether to bring criminal charges.
Earlier there were indications China's government would drag its feet investigating the Aug. 27 incident. Internet discussion forums, expressing the public mood, showed strong support for the attacker.
"An anti-Japanese hero for the 21st century," wrote one user. Others urged China's government not to arrest an activist for his patriotism.
The incident on Aug. 27 followed a flare-up in tensions over the Senkaku islets, which are administered by Japan but claimed by China. It calls them Diaoyu. Earlier this month, tit-for-tat landings by nationalists fueled outrage on both sides, resulting in violent protests in several Chinese cities.
In the latest incident, two cars swerved repeatedly near a limousine carrying Japanese Ambassador Uichiro Niwa. For about 10 minutes, they flashed their lights and blared their horns and tried to force the limousine to stop, embassy officials said.
"It was an extremely dangerous and egregious act," one said.
Japanese diplomats accompanying the ambassador used cellphones to record the attack, and captured images of the assailant who tore the flag from the hood. They handed pictures, including some showing the license plates, to Chinese investigators, who quickly promised an investigation.
The following morning, the public security bureau summoned Japanese diplomats to a meeting. Embassy staff expected to hear the arrest confirmed. But they were surprised to receive instead merely a bland statement: "The latest incident is very regrettable." An official told them the investigation would take more time.
There was ample evidence, as the photos appeared to show one car had plates issued by the Beijing municipal government and the other by the Anhui provincial government. And Beijing has an extensive network of automated number-plate recognition cameras, which should have made it easy to trace the vehicles, said an embassy official.
It seems China's authorities were caught off-guard by the attack. Initially they issued a memorandum banning reporters from covering the incident, said a source at a major media organization.
But the Internet became abuzz with comments and opinion. One portal carried an online survey that found three times as many people supported the attacker than those who disapproved.
Recent years saw similar support for activists who damaged property representing Japan, such as sushi restaurants and Japanese-made cars. Chinese authorities have rarely brought criminal charges against those involved.
The timing is sensitive. Sept. 18 will mark the anniversary of the 1931 Manchurian Incident, which led to Japan's annexation of parts of northeastern China. That date often results in anti-Japan protests in China.
Diplomatic sources have said Niwa will continue to fly Japan's flag on his official vehicle.
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