Anti-War Demonstrations in China

Apathy in East Asia

by Kim Petersen

Dissident Voice
February 20, 2003



To fight and conquer in all our battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting.

-- Sun Tzu


The weekend of 15-16 February saw large and small cities awash in a sea of protest against an impending re-conflagration of the Persian Gulf War. The display of people power gave impetus to the anti-war movement and saw setbacks to the chickenhawks in Washington; in Turkey, where popular opposition to the war is steep, the newly emboldened government postponed ratifying use of its territory as a staging point for war.


The anti-war euphoria though was not quite evident everywhere. Robert Fisk berated the paltry Arab anti-war rallies: “Could anything be more pathetic than the Arab demonstration against war?” (1) East Asia must have come very close. China saw no multitudes protesting war. Hong Kong and Taipei produced only a smattering of people. Protest ennui raised its pathetic head in Korea. Japan managed an unimpressive result. The numbers reported at the various rallies vary according to the source but even if the numbers herein are doubled the results are still low.


Even though the Tokyo rally was prominently featured in most media it drew only 5,000. That is the same number as my hometown, little Victoria, Canada, with a population of 300,000 compared to Tokyo’s 26.5 million (2001 data, source UN Population Division).


Polls in Japanese show a public dead set against an attack on Iraq. Yet the turnout was quite meek for a constitutionally pacifist nation. The constitutional anti-war clause enjoys widespread public approval; nonetheless, Prime Minister Koizumi attempts to finagle a constitutional deletion or re-interpretation allowing a projection of Japanese military power beyond its borders. The hawkish Mr. Koizumi went so far as to condemn the anti-war rallies declaiming that they gave succour to Saddam Hussein. (2)


Being the only country to have suffered the scourge of nuclear bombs, Japan is fervently anti-nuke. Even though information about US war plans has disclosed that US attack includes the possible use of nuclear weapons the turn out was paltry. It is difficult to know how many people are aware of US war plans.


South Koreans have a history of expressing dissent. But Seoul, a city of 9.9 million (2001 data, source UN Population Division), only saw a sparse anti-war crowd of 2,000 people - double the 1,000 mainly students that protested against the presence of US forces in Korea in October of last year. In October there were scuffles that broke out between the protestors and the police. This was in defiance of President Kim Dae-Jung who deplored the protests, stating that the US-South Korean relationship was vital to the nation’s security. Newly installed President Roh Moo Hyun is said to take a more distant line regarding the US.


The meagre gathering from South Korea is in absurd juxtaposition to the fact that it might be embroiled in the next episode of Mr. Bush’s series of endless wars.  North Korea has solid claim as the cynosure of Mr. Bush’s next so-called War on Terror. Finn Havor, a writer based in South Korea commented just before the demonstrations: “As the clouds of war gather in the Middle East, not many people in [South] Korea seem especially perturbed. Most are simply happily living their lives.” (3)


True public sentiment is hard to gauge as Havor alluded to a manufactured consent in the Korean media, seen as pushing for war in Iraq. Despite low turnouts in Korea, as in Japan, polls show public opinion is against the war in Iraq without UN authorization.


China is a different case. It is not surprising that in a nominally Communist state protests would be non-existent. The right to demonstrate is constitutionally guaranteed but requires state approval, something seldom granted. The most recent demonstrations were not state approved. In 2002 elderly unpaid state-owned-enterprise workers began assembling in Liaoyang to protest. The protests spread in northern China and reportedly peaked at over 50,000 demonstrators. The reaction by authorities was ruthless. The protest leaders were arrested and charged them with “organising illegal protests” and “subversion,” the latter of which carries a possible death penalty. (4)


No wonder the city streets were devoid of anti-war protestors in China; if ordinary workers complain about corrupt Communist apparatchiks pocketing their pay, they risk getting thrown in jail and facing a firing squad. The Chinese government, while remaining low-key, has come out in opposition to war. The China media has scrupulously avoided much mention of the Chinese government position and focussed instead on the leading doves of France and Germany.


Anti-war demonstrations are not unknown in China. The NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade led to a massive outpouring of demonstrations in Beijing and other cities. Beijing’s denunciation of the lethal bombing served as the fillip for demonstrations against the US and NATO for “deliberately ‘spilling Chinese blood.’” Then Vice-President Hu Jintao, who gave the green light for the protests, urged that the demonstrations be carried out in a legal and responsible manner. Beijing was taken aback, however, by the vehemence of the protestors and the how quickly the protests escalated with tens of thousands expressing their apoplexy. (5)


With the reverberations from the protests over the Belgrade Embassy bombing still fresh in memory, Beijing quickly went into spin control following the capture of a US spy plane and crew, which were interned on Hainan. The US spy had caused the downing of a Chinese jet fighter with the disappearance of the pilot. Two small demonstrations did occur on Hainan University campus but they failed to attract support from many students. Apparently Beijing kept a close hand on this incident. (6)


Political discourse is widely refrained from in China but one school teacher, ostensibly unfamiliar with Martin Niemoeller, quipped: “Why should I be concerned about what happens in Iraq? It is so far away.” This apathy hasn’t pervaded through to all the students, however. The same school’s newspaper featured the letter of an elementary school pupil who wrote a letter to Mr. Bush urging peace.


The Chinese authorities have consistently opposed war. China abstained from voting on UN Security Council Resolution 678, which gave the US and allies the UN imprimatur to liberate Kuwait. It opposed the American-led NATO bombing of Yugoslavia.


Lin Yutang, considered pacifism a key essence of the Chinese character. Of the people he stated: “[Chinese] hate war, and always will hate war. Good people never fight in China. For ‘good iron is not made into nails, and good men are not made soldiers.’” (7)


Kim Petersen is an English teacher living in China. Email:




(1) Robert Fisk, “A million march in London but, faced with disaster, the Arabs are like mice,” The Independent, 18 February 2003,


(2) Editorial, “Koizumi attacks global antiwar rallies,” Japan Times,18 February 2003,


(3) Finn Havor, “Bombing Perfect Strangers (Part I),” everyone’s a critic, 13 February 2003,


(4) Pranjal Tiwari, “Free the Liaoyang Four: Labor Organizers face execution in China,” Znet, January 13, 2003,


(5) Peter Symonds, “Mass demonstrations in China express outrage at NATO bombing,” World Socialist Web Site, 10 May 1999,  


(6) Jeremy Page, “China Dampens Anti-US Protests, Frustrates Students,” Friday, 6 April 2001, Yahoo! News,


(7) Lin Yutang, My Country and My People (Foreign language Teaching and Research Press, 2000).



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