INSIGHT: Mao references in anti-Japan protests a concern for Chinese authorities

September 18, 2012


Many demonstrators in the recent spate of violent anti-Japan protests in China have been carrying portraits of Mao Tse-tung.

And that has Chinese authorities worried.

The protests are essentially in opposition to Japan's recent nationalization of the Senkaku Islands, called the Diaoyu Islands in China.

However, some protesters have been carrying portraits of Mao, and groups that have supported Bo Xilai have also taken part. Before he was stripped of his post as secretary of the Chongqing municipal Communist Party committee in the spring, Bo had garnered praise for his calls to revive the course set by Mao.

One of Bo's policies was to deal with the spreading economic disparity in China. Chinese authorities are now apparently concerned about whether the anti-Japanese sentiment among protesters will spill over into criticism of a government that has not adequately dealt with the growing economic inequality in the nation.

A Sept. 16 protest in Shanghai included a parade through a district where many Japanese live. Some of the younger protesters were carrying portraits of Mao with signs that said, "Chairman Mao, we are thinking about you."

One male protester yelled: "It is unforgivable that the Chinese government is so weak-kneed. Only Mao Tse-tung's ideology can topple Japan's imperialism."

At protests in front of the Japanese Embassy in Beijing on Sept. 17, some demonstrators could be heard yelling, "Long live Chairman Mao."

Because Mao is considered the founding father of the People's Republic of China and was the supreme leader during the resistance movement against Japan during World War II, it is easy to link him to patriotic causes. However, the young protesters who are now shouting his name and carrying his portrait have no direct recollection of Mao. Moreover, there was little reference to Mao during similar anti-Japanese protests in 2005 and 2010.

One factor behind the recent revival of Mao is the dissatisfaction with the economic reform and open-door policy that was started by Deng Xiaoping after Mao's death in 1976, and has been continued by the current leadership.

On Aug. 17, soon after Hong Kong activists were detained by Japanese authorities for landing on one of the Senkaku Islands, a small-scale protest was held in front of the Japanese Embassy in Beijing. Among the participants were members of an Internet commentary site called "Wuyouzhixiang."

Group members support the course taken when Mao was in power that resulted in equality, even though many people may have remained poor.

According to sources, group members gathered on Aug. 16 at a conference room in a commercial building in Beijing to plan the demonstration. In February, group members met in the same conference room and held a closed session criticizing Deng, whom the group considers the overall designer of the economic reform and open-door policy.

The website operated by the group supported Bo for his efforts to carry on the course set by Mao. After Bo's fall from power in March, the website was shut down.

There is a deep gap between those who have become affluent due to economic development prompted by the reform and open-door policy and those who have fallen behind. Even within the Communist Party, there is still a deep division between those who support the reform course and more conservative elements who are critical of the reforms.

Some feel that the failure of the Communist Party to announce a schedule for the National Congress expected in autumn is due in part to that internal party conflict.

"We have never organized a protest as a group," said a high-ranking member of Wuyouzhixiang. "That was an independent action by some members."

However, the member said the group will participate in protests planned for Sept. 18 because those in favor of reform as well as conservatives can all come together behind an anti-Japanese theme.

At the same time, Chinese authorities have to carefully observe how the protests develop. On Sept. 17, some protesters in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, tried to enter a Communist Party facility. While the authorities may be turning a blind eye to the anti-Japanese protests, they also must ensure that the target of criticism does not turn toward them.

(This article was written by Atsushi Okudera in Shanghai and Nozomu Hayashi in Beijing.)

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Anti-Japanese protesters in Shanghai on Sept. 16 carry a portrait of Mao Tse-tung. (Atsushi Okudera)

Anti-Japanese protesters in Shanghai on Sept. 16 carry a portrait of Mao Tse-tung. (Atsushi Okudera)

  • Anti-Japanese protesters in Shanghai on Sept. 16 carry a portrait of Mao Tse-tung. (Atsushi Okudera)

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