More than 50 Chinese cities saw mass protests against Japan on Sunday, with police in the southern city of Shenzhen using tear gas and water cannons to dispel an angry mob.
The protests swept through China over the weekend, as large mobs demanded that Japan hand over control of a small island chain known as the Diaoyu in China and the Senkaku in Japan.
In Beijing, demonstrators pelted the Japanese embassy with eggs and rocks, in front of masses of paramilitary police.
In other cities, there were violent incidents, including the torching of a Panasonic factory and a Toyota dealership in Qingdao.
Some protesters who smashed cars in Xian, as crowds attacked Japanese-made vehicles, were identified by Chinese internet sleuths as policemen.
More than 1,000 protesters in Guangdong burned Japanese flags and stormed a hotel next to the Japanese consulate, while in the central city of Chengdu there was even an attempt by protesters to take their grievances to the US consulate.
Some Chinese observers believe that America is backing Japan over the island dispute.
Leon Panetta, the US Defence secretary, arrived in China on Sunday and warned that territorial tensions could bubble over into conflict.
“I am concerned that when these countries engage in provocations of one kind or another over these various islands, that it raises the possibility that a misjudgement on one side or the other could result in violence, and could result in conflict,” he said.
There have not been any reports of serious injuries to Japanese living in China, but Yoshihiko Noda, the prime minister of Japan, called on the authorities, who appear to be tacitly allowing the protests, to ensure the safety of citizens and businesses.
“This situation is a great disappointment and so we are protesting” to China, he told Fuji Television.
Finally, by Sunday evening, the authorities seemed to be trying to put the lid on public anger and the state media called for the public to be “rational” and obey the law.
The protests came as Xi Jinping, 59, China‘s president-in-waiting, reappeared after two weeks of mysterious absence. Mr Xi is just weeks away from being anointed as China’s next leader, and his sudden disappearance raised fears that he may have health problems.
He reappeared on Saturday and on Sunday the Foreign ministry said he would attend a meeting of South East Asian leaders in the southern region of Guangxi this Friday.
Thein Sein, the president of Burma, Thongsin Thammavong, the prime minister of Laos, and Nguyen Tan Dung, the prime minister of Vietnam, will also be there.
In addition to the anger at Japan, China has recently quarrelled with Vietnam over disputed territories in the South China Sea.
Some observers in China noted that the protests have been a useful distraction from domestic politics for the public, and that censors have allowed protesters to use social media to coordinate their marches.
The word “demonstration” was one of the top trends on Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, although by the end of the day the authorities had blacked out the words “Japanese embassy“. Chinese censors are usually extremely quick to delete any posts that might spark unrest.
Some Chinese state media urged protesters to refrain from violence.
“Smoking city blocks, overturned cars, faces contorted with anger – these are not the images of a civilised society,” the Beijing Youth Daily wrote on Sunday.
However, the nationalist Global Times newspaper suggested the protests were strengthening China‘s position against Japan in the struggle for the islands.
“China‘s strong expression of its anger and countermeasures are legitimate and reasonable,” it said, in an editorial. “With a high level of support from the public, China is gaining the upper hand psychologically in such a contest.”