Diaoyu activists from Hong Kong played Beijing's game, analysts say
Hongkongers who made a journey to the disputed Diaoyus had 'tacit support' of central government, acting as a risk-free outlet for mainland nationalism
As Japan agreed to deport the Hong Kong Diaoyu activists, many analysts said they believed their actions had been tacitly approved by Beijing, to contain mounting calls on the mainland for tough action against Tokyo.
They said it was far fetched to say the activists had been manipulated by Beijing, but the central government had made full use of their campaign to exert pressure on Tokyo.
Beijing has been faced with a dilemma over the East China Sea dispute for the past few months. When Japan said it was considering buying the disputed group of barren islands, which it calls the Senkakus, it triggered criticism that Beijing was being too lenient towards Tokyo.
But allowing mainland activists to go to the islands did not seem a feasible option because it would trigger more unease in both Japan and the mainland. And any attempt by Taiwanese activists would have its own complications.
"Taiwan has already said it won't co-operate with the mainland to defend the Diaoyus' sovereignty, and any moves creating such an impression would embarrass both Taiwan and the mainland," said Professor Edward Chen I-hsin from Taiwan's Tamkang University.
Previous attempts by Hong Kong activists to sail to the islands were blocked by the authorities on various grounds, such as licensing conditions and inadequate fire-safety precautions, but the activists were allowed to proceed this time.
"Beijing is taking advantage of the activists' campaign," said Ivan Choy Chi-keung, a political scientist at Chinese University. "I believe Beijing approved of their actions and the Hong Kong marine police decided to let them go.
"If mainland activists were allowed to sail, then various groups on the mainland might want to go too, creating a headache for Beijing."
In a move indicating the central authorities supportive attitude, mainland state media ran high-profile reports on the activists. China Central Television, for example, carried a live report of their landing on the island on Wednesday.
An editorial in the Global Times on Thursday even said the activists were "being backed by the state".
Ironically, many of these Hong Kong activists have long-standing opposition to the mainland authorities, and support the pro-democracy movement. Most mainland media reports omitted details of the activists' backgrounds.
Professor Fan Jinfa, from the mainland's National Defence University, simply replied "I have no idea" when asked about their background in an online chat session organised by people.com.cn
However, while state media were hailing the Hong Kong activists' campaign as a patriotic move, their mainland counterparts have been barred from expressing their discontent towards Tokyo.
Li Nan, a member of the China Federation for Defending the Diaoyu Islands, said he was frustrated. Mainland authorities had told his association and the World Chinese Alliance in Defence of the Diaoyu Islands to call off planned protests at the Japanese embassy in Beijing on Thursday and yesterday, following a protest on Wednesday. However, sporadic protests still went ahead.
"The authorities want to maintain stability," Li said. "But if that means that we have to give up declaring our territorial rights, this is not the stability we want."
Zhang Xuezhong, a professor at East China University of Political Science and Law, said the central government wanted to use nationalist sentiment to reinforce its legitimacy, but only in a very circumspect way, especially ahead of a national Communist Party congress in the capital.
"The central government is well aware that its political base will be shaken if public sentiment gets out of control and targets the authorities," he said. "It wants both public sentiment and displays of sovereignty kept under its control."
Zhang said the successful landing by the Hong Kong activists would lead to calls for their mainland counterparts to be given more freedom, a view shared by many internet users.
Zhao Chu, a Shanghai-based commentator, said on his microblog: "Only when you embrace freedom can you be patriotic, and only when you have freedom can you better protect the nation's sovereignty."