Center for Strategic Communication

[ by Charles Cameron — comparative riotology, with sidelong glances at goats and a single mole ]


It’s not always disrespect for the Prophet that causes people to burn flags and attempt to break into embassies

This week, the disputed sovereignty of some uninhabited islands has done the trick quite nicely in Beijing, where rioters have attempted to breach the Japanese embassy and burned the Japanese flag (upper image, above) in a manner that’s somehow reminiscent of the breaching of the US embassy and corresponding burning of the US flag (lower image) in Cairo .

I imagine that if one was Japanese or Chinese, one might consider the Beijing protests over the ownership of the Senkaku / Diaoyu / Tiaoyutai Islands to be the primary troubling news-story about embassies, rioting and gross breaches of diplomatic protocol this week.

There’s a strange kind of parallax involved here, I think. Or perhaps: what’s in the foreground depends on where you stand.

But that’s not to say there’s an exact equivalence between the situations, just that bearing one in mind may shed some light on the other.


I hope to get into the layers and layers of motivation that feed a riot in a subsequent post, but for now I’d just like to point to one similarity between the two situations. In each case, there’s an undertow of strong feeling that surfaces at a certain point — and astonishes us by its force.

In the case of the disputed islands, it may be Chinese feelings about Japanese behavior towards them in World War II that are triggered by Japanese claims on the islands. As China Daily USA says:

Japan has to recognize China’s sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands and atone for its past aggressions and atrocities, and take measures to punish those Japanese who deny the country’s violent past, in the way that Germany has been doing for decades. Only if Japan does that will China and other Asian countries see it as a normal country. Otherwise, China should prepare for a long-term struggle.

Or as the Israeli Arutz7 puts it:


The dispute with Japan is now part of the legacy of World War II and China claims that under the Potsdam Declaration of 1945, Japan was obligated to return all the territories seized illegally.

The above means that the dispute over the islands is now connected to one of the most highly charged issues in Sino-Japanese history, making it a matter of national honor for the Chinese that is not subject to negotiation.

Note here that the question is expressly one of honor.

It is significant, too, that the Chinese can be described as lenient towards their protesters attaching the sovereign embassy of a sovereign nation, just as the Egyptian government has been described as lenient towards their protesters attacking the sovereign embassy of the United States:

In the interim, China has allowed anti-Japanese demonstrators a relative freehand (“Their feelings are perfectly understandable” explained the Chinese Foreign Ministry) and the Japanese Embassy in Beijing has issued warnings to Japanese citizens and businessmen to take precautionary measures.


I strongly believe that undertows, as I am calling them here, are among the most important topics for monitoring and analysis — and that the fact that they so often take us by surprtise is a good reason to pay them closer analytic attention.

They surface in dreams, in graffiti, in conspiracy theories, in all the liminal spaces. And they can have game-changing impact: Great Game Changing impact.

That, btw, is why Cass Sunstein‘s paper on conspiracy theories is one we should consider in detail here on ZP one of these days.


Of course, as this recent map from the Economist shows

– there are also oil and gas fields nearby.

What drives a crowd to riot and what interests the powers that be may be two very different sides to the same affair.


Curious Goat Fact accompaning the above map:

In the 1970s Japanese ultra-rightists took two goats on a 2,000km (1,250-mile) trip southwest from Tokyo to a group of uninhabited rocks near Taiwan called the Senkaku Islands. In the absence of humans willing to live in such a remote outpost, the hardy creatures would be the vanguard of a new push to solidify Japan’s hold over the islets, which are also claimed by China and Taiwan.

Supplementary Mole Fact:

The Senkaku mole is an endangered species.


Does comparing Beijing 2012 with Cairo 2012 change the emphasis with which you view recent events in Cairo and elsewhere?

Do you find the analogy between Cairo 2012 (upper panel above) and Tehran 1979 (lower panel) more convincing?

Look, I think the making of analogies is one of the chief ways — if not the chief way — in which we make “instinctive” judgments, which we then back up with appropriately selected data and reasoning. If you like, it’s subject to our own mental version of undertow in terms of what analogies we chose and how strongly we then weigh them — unless we take responsibility for the process, and begin to explore how it actually works in our own minds, and in the public mind…

Analogy is an extremely powerful instrument of thought — and it’s about time we understood it as well as we understand linear logic.