- Associated Press - Thursday, August 23, 2012

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-Japan 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 Mr. Wu ahead of a planned protest in his hometown of Changsha in southern China tailed him for 24 hours, ended 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,” Mr. Wu said. “Our government has failed to protect its own interests.”

Veteran activists involved in previous anti-Japan 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 territorial interests.

Territorial disputes are common among East and Southeast Asian nations as they vie for control of fishing grounds and natural resources.

Tensions over the Diaoyu islands 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 islands 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.

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