BEIJING — Tensions between Asia's two most powerful countries spilled into the streets of Beijing on Saturday as thousands of people marched through the Chinese capital calling for a boycott of Japanese-made goods and condemning Tokyo's bid to join the U.N. Security Council.
Officials estimate that as many as 10,000 people joined the protest, making it the largest rally here since 1999, when demonstrators besieged the American Embassy after the U.S. accidentally bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo war.
Hundreds of police and paramilitary officers in riot gear kept Saturday's gathering under control, even providing buses to take demonstrators home. Though the crowd was mostly peaceful, some protesters threw bottles and rocks at the Japanese Embassy and smashed windows of Japanese businesses.
Public demonstrations are rarely permitted in Communist China, leading some to believe that the rally was as much a government-sanctioned move to send a signal to Japan as it was a spontaneous public outpouring.
Tensions between the two countries have been escalating over issues steeped in history and national pride.
Japan approved new textbooks last week that downplayed its military aggression during World War II, infuriating its neighbors, who say Tokyo is whitewashing its wartime atrocities. Beijing estimates that 35 million Chinese were killed or wounded during the Japanese occupation from 1931 to 1945.
In the same vein, China opposes Japan's attempt to gain a permanent seat on the Security Council. About 20 million Chinese are believed to have signed an online petition opposing Tokyo's bid. China is one of five council members with veto power and has rarely used its "no" vote to sway world politics.
"We hope China would vote no and not just abstain," said protester Liu Bei, 23, an office worker who had painted "Resist Japan" on her face.
The large turnout may also have been a testament to the mobilizing potential of the Internet and cellphones. Many of the protesters said they had found out about the rally through e-mails and text messages. Others simply joined on the spot.
"There was only about a thousand people when we started. Now look how many there are. It just snowballed," said one junior from People's University.
Demonstrators started the march in the city's university district in the morning and converged about six hours later in front of the embassy. Many were students. Others carried children. They sang the national anthem, waved Chinese flags and held signs that read, "China Say No!" and "Down with Japanese Imperialism!"
"Chinese people have been silent for too long," said Liu Yong, 29, a lawyer. "We want to prove that we dare to stand up against the Japanese. We want to show our government that this is the will of the people and we cannot be ignored."
Today, hundreds of protesters upset about the same issues marched toward Japan's consulate in the southern city of Guangzhou, wire services reported.
Last week, violent anti-Japan protests broke out in several other Chinese cities, prompting critics to say that Beijing was not doing enough to tame inflammatory nationalism and emphasize the positive aspects of the Sino-Japanese relationship.
Japanese Vice Foreign Minister Shotaro Yachi launched a formal complaint Saturday against Beijing's handling of the protests and demanded security assurances for citizens in China.
Other thorny issues tearing at the fabric of Sino-Japanese relations include a dispute over a string of small islands in the East China Sea that are rich in symbolic value and natural resources. Tokyo also irked Beijing by stepping up military cooperation with the U.S. and offering to defend Taiwan, which China considers a breakway province, if the mainland were to attack.
China last year replaced the U.S. as Japan's No. 1 trading partner. Japanese goods such as cameras, cellphones, televisions and cars are part of life in China.
"I know we live in a global economy," said protester Li Tao, who wore a suit and draped himself in the Chinese flag. "We are not saying we are against all things Japanese. We just want to make a statement that we love our country and we want our country to be strong."
As night fell, what was left of the crowd tried to march to Tiananmen Square, the political heart of the capital, but was stopped by police. The government and demonstrators may have a shared interest against Japan, but officials know things can easily get out of control.
"This is quite delicate for the government; they have to manage it very carefully," said Dali Yang, a China expert at the University of Chicago. "A lot of people have become quite disenchanted. They could be daring the government to crack down on them. If the government does, it would be seen as unpatriotic."