Protests over South China Sea ruling must avoid going to extremes
Over-the-top nationalist sentiment voiced through expressions of anger, shouted slogans and illegal acts cannot be helpful to prospects of a peaceful resolution to territorial disputes.
The mainland government encourages patriotism and forbids most forms of protest. There is no obvious conflict there, but the authorities have had to strike a balance between the two in the wake of an international tribunal’s ruling that denied Beijing’s claim to virtually the entire South China Sea. The ruling has led to patriotic protests outside KFC restaurants and other American targets in several cities, with demonstrators unfurling banners and calling for a boycott.
In an apparent attempt to prevent the protests developing into more widespread, large-scale street demonstrations, mainland newspapers, led by Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily, have carried commentaries criticising them.
The authorities are mindful that they can easily spin out of control, like those in the past against Japan and others involving violence against foreign businesses and attacks on their mainland customers. Indeed, the KFC protesters have harassed local customers, accusing them of “losing face” for their ancestors and not being patriotic.
The state media criticism has rightly drawn the line between nationalistic attacks via the internet and demonstrations that can easily get out of hand – so long as angry words on the internet are not turned into extreme ideas that are put into practice on the streets. It said that far from being patriotic, obstructing KFC outlets and stopping other people from dining violated the law.
Although China and the Philippines remain far apart in their territorial dispute, neither side has ruled out negotiations. At such a sensitive time, over-the-top nationalist sentiment voiced through expressions of anger, shouted slogans and illegal acts cannot be helpful to prospects of a peaceful resolution. Seeking official permission to protest peacefully without disrupting public order, as suggested by state media, may lack spontaneity in the eyes of an internet generation raised in an environment of nationalism. But if they do not want to do things by the book they need to avoid going to extremes and respect the rights of others.