BEIJING – Wu Qingjun is no dissident. In fact, this activist's pet issue — China's claim over a set of islands controlled by Japan — aligns him squarely with Beijing's government. But that didn't stop authorities from sending four agents to tail him.
As Beijing continues a tense war of words with Tokyo over a set of islands in the East China Sea, it is quietly reining in anti-Japanese activists at home, trying to keep them from staging protests that could threaten relations with Tokyo or even backfire into criticisms of China's communist government.
The government's sensitivity over protests that took place in several Chinese cities on Sunday over the set of islands — known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan — reflects its perpetual fear that allowing its people too much freedom to hold protests — any protests — could snowball into domestic dissidence.
The four state security agents sent to watch over Wu ahead of a planned protest in his hometown of Changsha in southern China tailed him for 24 hours, ending their surveillance only after the protest was well over. He was thwarted in his plan to deliver calcium pills to the local military base in a gesture aimed at telling his government to show more fortitude in the dispute.
"They need to have a stronger backbone," Wu said. "Our government has failed to protect its own interests."
Veteran activists involved in previous anti-Japanese campaigns say police have prevented them from taking part in protests in several Chinese cities this past week and that they remain under watch. The government has warned boat captains not to take any campaigners to the islands, where like-minded Chinese from Hong Kong landed on Aug. 15 in a move that raised diplomatic tensions.
Beijing is especially averse to activism ahead of a generational handover of power in the Communist Party later this year, and dislikes being portrayed as soft in defending Chinese territorial interests.
Territorial disputes are common among East and Southeast Asian nations as they vie for control of fishing grounds and natural resources. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak recently angered Japan by visiting a disputed island in the Sea of Japan claimed by both countries, prompting Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to send Lee a letter of protest.
On Thursday, a South Korean diplomat in Tokyo attempting to return the letter was stopped by Japanese authorities from entering the Foreign Ministry building.
Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Masaru Sato said returning a signed personal letter from a national leader is "simply impossible" and "extremely impolite and unheard of."
The United States on Thursday said it was "uncomfortable" that two valued U.S. allies were in dispute and urged them to resolve it peacefully.
"It's obviously not comfortable for us when they have a dispute between them. So our message to each of them is the same: Work this out, work it out peacefully, work it out through consultation," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told a news conference in Washington.
Tensions over the Diaoyu islands between Japan and China flared again this year when the outspoken Tokyo governor floated a plan to purchase the islands from private ownership to solidify the state's claim. The U.S. reiterated its support of Japan's claim over the island on Wednesday.
In China, the state-run media have been in full battle cry and authorities have not banned online discussions about the islands dispute, but activism is being kept under tight control.
"We are considered an element of social unrest," said Li Nan, an anti-Japan activist in Beijing who says he is constantly questioned by police about his plans.
The state-run media praised Sunday's protests in China as spontaneous acts that inspired patriotism and showed national unity, but condemned the violence that accompanied them. In some cities, Japanese restaurants were vandalized and Japanese-brand cars, including a police car, were smashed by angry protesters.
"Regrettably, a few people did stupid things," read an editorial in the state-run China Youth Daily, adding that photos of the acts "hurt the patriotic protests and hurt the national image of China."
A Wednesday editorial in the Global Times urged the public not to blindly boycott anything Japanese because of the bilateral economic interests between the countries.
"As long as we can keep the political stability, time will be on our side. Don't overreact and fall into the other's trap," the newspaper said.
The U.S-based China Digital Times, which tracks the Chinese online media, said Chinese media have been told to play down the anti-Japanese protests and not to circulate photos of vandalism during the protests. The Associated Press could not independently verify the information.
Wu, the activist from Changsha, said he knew police would be visiting him when the word started to spread last week online about the planned protest.
To save himself from the trouble of explaining the appearance of police to his neighbors, Wu said he decided to check into a hotel and inform the police of his whereabouts.
"I'm not hiding or fleeing," said Wu, whose past experience told him the police would find him anyway.
"There is a price to pay to defend the Diaoyus, that is to lose some freedom and some privacy," Wu wrote on his microblogging account, apparently in defiance of police warnings against posting online.
Wu said he still gets calls from police asking if any further protests or activities are planned.
In Beijing, Li said he has been told not to attempt to travel to the islands. "It has become impossible," Li said. "The biggest obstacle for groups defending the islands comes from the government."
"The Chinese government is not used to any grass-roots organization, whether it is for environmental protection or AIDS," Li said. The government is suspicious of such groups' motives, he said.
And it does not help that the activists are grumbling about what they see as the government's failure to act even though its public stance on the island chain is the same as theirs.
"The government has no strategy to deal with the dispute with Japan. But whenever there are internal protests, it is quick to take action to ensure order," Li said.
Associated Press writers Sam Kim in Seoul, South Korea, Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo and Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.
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