A Nissan car in Shanghai. During the anti-Japan protests, hundreds, perhaps… (Peter Parks / AFP/Getty…)
BEIJING — The $15,000 that factory worker Li Jianli saved up to buy his white Toyota Corolla turned out to be nowhere near the costliest part of the deal. He nearly paid with his life.
Li was out in the central city of Xian on a recent Saturday afternoon looking for an apartment for his soon-to-be-married son when he happened to steer the car into one of the anti-Japanese demonstrations that were rocking China.
Then Li made another mistake: He leaped out of the car to plead with the mob not to trash the vehicle, which he'd bought just last year. A burly young man smashed him over the head with a U-shaped steering-wheel lock.
Li, 51, now lies in hospital bed, partially paralyzed as a result of the Sept. 15 beating. A video of the beating was released Wednesday by a reporter with the Beijing Youth Daily, prompting a round of soul-searching over the violence that engulfed China this month.
The anti-Japanese riots, prompted by a dispute over some uninhabited islands, have taken a psychological and economic toll on China. Japanese automakers Toyota, Nissan, Mazda and Suzuki announced this week that they were pausing their production in China because of reduced demand, a move that will harm Japanese joint ventures with Chinese companies and potentially cost Chinese jobs. The number of flights between Japan and China have been reduced as well.
"Japan will really be hurt because China is its largest trading partner, but this is not so good for China either," said Hu Xingdou, an economics professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology. "We are looking at billions of dollars of losses coming out of this conflict."
In protests in more than 80 cities, Japanese-owned factories and stores were looted and set on fire. Hundreds if not thousands of Japanese-model cars were overturned and destroyed. In isolated cases, Japanese nationals were attacked. Two in Shanghai went to hospitals for treatment, but their injuries were not serious, a spokesman for the Japanese Embassy said.
The most seriously injured in all the protests was Li, a Chinese citizen. He is reported to be mostly paralyzed on the right side and to have impaired speech.
His wife told the Beijing Youth Daily that the couple pleaded with the mob, "We worked so hard to save money to buy this car. Please don't smash it. We were wrong to buy a Japanese car. We won't do it again, OK?"
The video starts a few moments later, showing Li bleeding on the pavement as a young man repeatedly hits Li in the head before moving on to attack the car. Many in the crowd take photographs and videos until a bystander steps out and yells for people to take Li to a hospital.
"Come on, we're all Chinese, not Japanese," he tells them.
A Xian police officer, who gave his name as Luo, said investigators are reviewing videos and photographs of the attack and hope to announce arrests shortly.
The violence has provoked much self-criticism on microblogs, with the video of Li's attack being forwarded more than 80,000 times by the end of the day Wednesday.
The Chinese government initially encouraged the anti-Japanese demonstrations. But it clamped down last week amid criticism within China that the violence suggested unflattering parallels to such episodes as the anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion of 1900 or the Cultural Revolution of the1960s and 1970s.
"Even though it is 2012, history can easily repeat itself … Boxers, Red Guards, mobsters, generation after generation," wrote one microblogger in comments that were widely reposted.
The violence was making Wang Jia, 28, think twice about buying a Toyota.
"I've dreamed my whole life of buying this kind of car, but to be honest I'm a little scared," said Wang, who was looking at cars Wednesday in a Toyota showroom. Like many other Japanese establishments, it was flying a Chinese flag outside to deter rioters.
Wang said his company had many Japanese cars but had stopped driving them out of fear. Protests against Japan were fine, Wang said, but when protesters started smashing cars, "this is not rational behavior."
Times staff writer Julie Makinen and Nicole Liu in The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.