BEIJING--An activist who allegedly ripped a flag from the limousine of Japan's ambassador continues to be questioned by Beijing authorities, as they face a dilemma over what to do next.
They want to prevent relations from worsening with Japan. But if they arrest the man and charge him, actions that China has stopped short of in the past, it could ignite public anger.
Nationalists on the Internet have called a former foreign minister a traitor after he criticized the flag-grabbing stunt. Tang Jiaxuan was known for taking a hard line on Japan while in office, but he said of the flag attacker: "His action is not patriotic; rather, it hurts the nation."
Tensions have boiled over the Senkaku Islands, which are administered by Japan but claimed by both China and Taiwan. Tit-for-tat landings there by activists sparked violent protests in dozens of Chinese cities this month.
The incident in Beijing on Aug. 27 saw activists in two cars repeatedly swerve near a limousine carrying Japan's ambassador, Uichiro Niwa. Several times the cars came dangerously close, and after about 10 minutes the limo halted. An activist snatched the flag from the hood, damaging its pole.
Informed sources in China's Communist Party say President Hu Jintao is taking the incident seriously because it involved a national flag, symbol of a sovereign nation.
The case is important, too, because it apparently endangered the ambassador and staff traveling with him; the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations demands that host countries ensure the safety of diplomats.
Government and Communist Party officials have promised a thorough inquiry. The Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau has set up a special squad to investigate the incident.
Authorities are considering charges of destroying property relating to the damaged flag fittings. That could carry a fine or a maximum three-year prison term.
Other possible charges might relate to disrupting traffic, sources said.
But for now, the suspect and his alleged companions are being questioned on a voluntary basis.
Records show acts of violence toward Japanese symbols seldom end up in court, including previous protests in which demonstrators smashed up Japanese supermarkets and restaurants.
In another example, no charges were brought against a Chinese man who assaulted a Japanese flag during a soccer match involving Japan's national team in Shandong province, in October 2010.
China's government wants to avoid antagonizing domestic opinion in the weeks ahead of a rare leadership reshuffle, expected this fall.
Internet users have compared the flag assault to the celebrated subversive actions of the Righteous Harmony Society, which rose up against foreign imperialism in the Boxer Rebellion in the late 19th century.
In that rebellion, a rioting mob murdered foreign diplomats.
Internet users note China's government has in the past hailed the Boxer Rebellion as an example of patriotism.
So authorities could release the man with no charge. But that risks a further unraveling of relations with Japan, and of China's reputation in the eyes of other world powers.
The volume of evidence against the suspect is compelling. Even the car license plates were suspected to be fake, said Gao Hong, deputy director at the Institute of Japanese Studies at the government-affiliated Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Gao was speaking Aug. 29 in a symposium marking 40 years since Japan and China normalized relations.
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