Beijing By taxi and bicycle, the young men arrived near the Japanese embassy. They carried loudspeakers and sirens and giant red Chinese flags. They wore shirts with anti-Japanese slogans.
It could mean only one thing. The Chinese patriots were on the prowl again.
"Flag-holder, come to the front," shouted an organizer as the patriots began to march. "Hold it higher, so that everyone can see!"
They waved their flags and unfurled two red banners denouncing Japan, and marched down the street to the embassy. They chanted slogans, listened to an emotional speech, sang the national anthem and delivered a petition to the embassy mailbox. "Japan, apologize for your crimes," they shouted.
Among the marchers was one of their chief organizers, an earnest 29-year-old computer programmer named Lu Yunfei. His boyish face, with his conservative haircut and wire-rim glasses, is the new face of China's resurgent nationalism: a well-organized movement that exploits Internet technology to launch petitions and verbal attacks against Japan and the United States.
As communism slides into irrelevance, the new nationalists are emerging as a powerful force in China, with ominous implications for its neighbours.
After a soccer match between China and Japan in Beijing this summer, hundreds of angry Chinese men chanted "Kill the Japanese" as they pelted Japan's team bus with plastic bottles and forced Japanese fans to hide behind a police barricade for hours.
A few years ago, Mr. Lu spent his weekends strumming his guitar and singing karaoke at Beijing nightclubs. Today, he spends all of his spare time up to 50 hours a week on his work with the Patriots Alliance, a network of nationalist activists with close to 100 volunteer workers and 79,000 registered supporters on its website.
He has postponed his wedding to his fiancée three times in the past year because he is so busy with the alliance. He has helped organize more than 10 public protests in the past two years a stunning number in a country where such gatherings are normally illegal.
The nationalist mood seems to be gaining strength every year here. The schools are filled with "patriotic education" classes. Young people are organizing boycotts of Japanese products. Web petitions against the Japanese government are attracting millions of supporters. The Japanese are routinely denounced as "devils" and "little Japs" in chat rooms on the Chinese Internet, and one bar in southern China went so far as to post a "Japanese not welcome" sign.
A few years ago, optimists had hoped democracy would be nurtured by China's growing personal freedoms and its new Internet culture. But in reality, it is the nationalists, not the democrats, who have scored the biggest victories from the relaxed atmosphere.
"All of our events are very exciting," Mr. Lu boasts. "Everything we're doing is unprecedented. Nobody has done it before. People nowadays have more freedom to express their feelings and put them into practice."
While most of Mr. Lu's activities are aimed against Japan, he is also quick to vent his hostility against the United States. He fully expects a war between China and the United States, and he vows to be the first volunteer in the battle against the Americans if there is a war over Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a renegade province. "I love my country deeply," he says. "I have a stable job and a good income, but if a war happens, I'll go to the front lines without hesitation."
In some countries, a small protest by 20 people at an embassy might be a routine event. But in China, where everything is carefully regulated, the protest at the Japanese embassy last month was highly significant. The protest was held quite openly, with full police knowledge, on the third day of the annual conference of the Communist Party's central committee, at a time when police were strictly banning all protests by anyone else.
Thousands of petitioners and protesters in Beijing had been rounded up by police during the Communist Party meeting to avoid any embarrassment to the political elite. Yet even as arrests continued, the Chinese patriots were allowed to carry out their demonstration freely, under the noses of police officers who carefully supervised the event and even escorted one of the organizers inside the embassy's fence to deliver his petition.
It was further evidence of Beijing's semi-official approval of the new nationalists. The Communist leaders are seeking to harness Chinese nationalism as a unifying force, a sentiment that can be tapped by authorities to build loyalty, to quell opposition, and to fire the passions of young people who might otherwise drift into dissent.
"With the decline of Communist ideology as a source of legitimacy, the Communist Party depends even more on nationalism to legitimize its rule," wrote American scholar Peter Gries, author of the book China's New Nationalism, in a forthcoming issue of the China Quarterly.
The nationalism has become so virulent that it even questions China's economic reforms. Several recent Chinese books have denounced globalization as an evil U.S. plot and an attempt to imprison China. Chinese trade negotiators were called "traitors" for leading China into the World Trade Organization. One analyst said the nationalists were reviving the spirit of the Boxers the xenophobic rebels who slaughtered hundreds of Christians and others with alleged foreign connections in a famous revolt in 1900.
Mr. Gries argues that the Maoist "victor narrative," which glorified Communist victories over Japanese and Western imperialism, has been replaced since the mid-1990s by a new "victim narrative" that emphasizes China's suffering at the hands of Japanese and Western occupiers during a "Century of Humiliation."
While the anti-American feelings of many Chinese first exploded into the world spotlight in the violent protests against the U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, most of the nationalist hostility today is aimed at Japan.
Even after decades of normalized relations and billions of dollars in Japanese economic aid to China, there is a mounting fury against Japan that goes beyond the historical memories of the Nanjing massacre and the Japanese invasion of the 1930s. In one recent survey, 53 per cent of Chinese respondents admitted to hating the Japanese.
"After a quarter-century of unprecedented economic growth, most Chinese no longer fear Japan, and a long-suppressed anger at Japan has resurfaced," Mr. Gries wrote. "Chinese animosity towards Japan is unquestionably out of control. . . . The Japan-bashers are ascendant. A winner-takes-all, show-no-mercy style reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution is prevalent."
The mood was symbolized by a 2001 incident in which Chinese actress and model Zhao Wei was photographed in a short dress with a large imperial Japanese flag imprinted upon it. The dress was created by an American designer and the photo was taken during a fashion shoot in New York, but none of that mattered to the enraged Chinese patriots, who used bricks and bottles to assault Ms. Zhao's house. One man assaulted the actress on stage during a New Year's Eve show, pushing her over and smearing her with excrement. "I don't think I did anything inappropriate," the man said later.
When liberal journalist Ma Licheng wrote an article in an academic journal in 2002 that criticized the anti-Japanese mood and called for rapprochement between China and Japan, he was immediately condemned as a "traitor." He suffered death threats, and his home address and telephone number were posted on the Internet, along with a call to burn down his house. He was obliged to quit his job and move to Hong Kong.
Other incidents swiftly followed. In 2003, the Patriots Alliance organized the first-ever attempt to send Chinese activists to land on the Diaoyu islands, a cluster of small volcanic islands controlled by Japan but claimed by China. (They are called the Senkaku islands in Japan.) The alliance also organized a Web-based petition against a Japanese bid to provide high-speed railway technology to China.
There was another outpouring of anti-Japanese rhetoric on the Internet in 2003 after a group of Japanese businessmen hired hundreds of Chinese prostitutes during a visit to southern China. And a few weeks later, when three Japanese students performed a risqué drag show during a university party in the city of Xian, there was an angry demonstration by 7,000 Chinese protesters who demanded an apology for the perceived insult to their national dignity.
Then came the violence of the China-Japan soccer match this summer, where fans burned Japanese flags, smashed the car window of a Japanese diplomat, waved theatrical swords, and sang martial songs with lyrics such as, "A big knife chops off the heads of the Japanese devils." China was forced to mobilize 12,000 soldiers and police officers to prevent rioting.
All of this is adding fuel to the campaigns of nationalists such as the Patriots Alliance. In an interview in a Beijing coffee shop, Mr. Lu wore a black T-shirt with a nationalist rallying cry in small white characters. "Protect the Diaoyu islands," the slogan proclaimed.
Despite a strict ban on political activism in China, the patriots have been free to display their slogans on their chests. "Nobody tells us not to wear such T-shirts," Mr. Lu says.
He sees the rise of China as a rightful return to its place as the dominant force in the world.
"The United States is afraid of our long history," he says. "China has had over 5,000 years of history, and our backward period was only the past 200 years. During the rest of our history, we were the world's leader."