China and Japan's recent showdown over the Diaoyu (or Senkaku, to the Japanese) archipelago seems to have cooled down with the release of the captain of a Chinese fishing vessel who was detained by the Japanese coast guard earlier this month. Quite a few official Chinese media outlets ran big headlines proclaiming that the Japanese had capitulated. Yet it's by no means clear that China was the victor.
Indeed, the extraordinary lengths to which Beijing has gone to rein in public protests over the alleged Japanese occupation of the Diaoyu, as the islands are called in China, has exposed a critical shortcoming of the so-called China model: the Chinese Communist Party leadership's inability to make effective use of public opinion to advance domestic as well as diplomatic goals. Instead of leading public opinion, these days Chinese leaders are sometimes pushed into uncomfortable stances that reduce their options.
The row with Japan is a case in point. At the height of the dispute, Chinese authorities pulled out all the stops to prevent patriotic Chinese from airing their views. Protest organizers of protests, such as the editors of www.cfdd.org.cn, a website well-known for its advocacy of Diaoyu-related issues, were given warnings by the police "not to break the law" by holding demonstrations and other radical actions.
The few hundred activists who joined rallies on Sept. 18 -- which marked the 79th anniversary of the Japanese invasion of China's northeastern provinces -- in cities including Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Shenzhen, were subjected to tight surveillance by police, who outnumbered the demonstrators by at least four to one. The protesters were dispersed by law-enforcement agents within an hour or so.
On Sept. 12, Chinese police prevented a group of nationalist activists from renting a boat to sail from Fujian province to the Diaoyu islets to proclaim Chinese sovereignty. A similar action 10 days later by a patriotic NGO in Hong Kong was foiled by the local administration, which stopped the fishing vessel on the grounds that it was not licensed to carry passengers.
One reason Beijing is so nervous about demonstrations is that based on past experience, "troublemakers" often take advantage of such rare occasions to air grievances regarding nondiplomatic issues, especially corruption within party and government departments. That explains why at least nine activists, according to the watchdog Chinese Human Rights Defenders, were detained or warned not to participate in the rallies in Beijing and Guangzhou. Among them were Xu Zhiyong, a lecturer at Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, and Teng Biao, a lawyer. Xu and Teng are well-known NGO activists who have stood up for victims of official corruption.
Yet the most important reason why party authorities are paranoid about public protests is that aside from casting aspersions Tokyo's way, demonstrators might also zero in on Beijing's failure to do anything substantial to recover the lost territory. Sino-Japanese wrangling over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands dates back to the early 1970s, when Washington returned the archipelago to Japan, but Beijing's actions have never gone beyond rhetorical assertions of its "sovereignty since time immemorial."
Nor are they likely to. Despite the leaps-and-bounds development of the Chinese Navy, a military solution seems out of the question. The islets fall within the Japanese-American mutual defense treaty, a fact that was reiterated by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she met visiting Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara in New York last week.
A more realistic solution is the one advocated by late patriarch Deng Xiaoping when he visited Japan in 1978: seeking joint development of the islands, which are rich in natural resources, while shelving sovereignty concerns. Deng said on the occasion that it might be better to let "future generations, which may be wiser" to tackle the sovereignty imbroglio. Deng's statement, which could be interpreted as legitimizing the status quo of the Diaoyu being run by Japan on a de facto basis, has never been given much publicity in China. It is also not mentioned in high-school history textbooks.