BEIJING — Anti-Japanese protests flared in more than a dozen cities across China on Saturday, with some demonstrators trying to storm police barricades outside Japan’s embassy in Beijing as thousands pelted the building with rocks and eggs.
The Japanese Kyodo News agency cited protests in at least 28 cities and quoted an unnamed diplomatic source as saying the scale of protests was largest since the two nations normalized ties in 1972.
Online video and photographs from several cities showed shops and restaurants with damage ranging from broken windows to ransacking. Some buildings were reportedly left in flames.
The Japanese government earlier in the week had announced it had bought three uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that are part of a contested chain at the heart of a territorial dispute between China and Japan. The purchase from a private family that Japan recognized as owning the trio of islands enraged Beijing and threatened to make it look weak to a home audience that harbors profound historical animus toward Tokyo.
On Friday, six Chinese marine surveillance ships patrolled near the islands, known in China as the Diaoyu and to Japan as the Senkaku. In addition to sending the surveillance craft, the Chinese government issued a stream of strong statements in state media saying it would protect the nation’s interests in the matter.
Japanese officials apparently made the buy to prevent the governor of Tokyo from carrying out his intention of doing the same and, unlike the national government, developing the islands in what would have been viewed here as an even more explosively provocative act.
While the anger toward the Japanese might temporarily deflect attention from China’s internal issues — authorities appeared to have done little to discourage the gatherings, which probably would have had difficulty happening without at least tacit consent — Beijing might well worry about further protests tapping into broader rage and getting out of hand.
It’s been an especially tumultuous period for a Chinese Communist Party that prefers buttoned-down stability. Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, the man slated to become the next president of China, resurfaced only on Saturday morning after a two-week disappearance and rampant rumors about health problems and factional infighting.
An item with photographs on the state Xinhua news wire’s website showed Xi visiting the China Agricultural University in Beijing “for activities marking the National Science Popularization Day.”
There was no explanation given for Xi’s absence, after whispers of everything from a back injury to a heart attack.