BEIJING (AP) — Protests against Japan over its control of disputed islands spread across more than two dozen cities in China and turned violent at times Saturday, with protesters burning Japanese flags and clashing with Chinese paramilitary police at the Japanese Embassy before order was restored.
Thousands of protesters gathered in front of the embassy in Beijing. Hundreds tried to storm a metal barricade backed by riot police armed with shields, helmets and batons. Many threw rocks, bottles, eggs and traffic cones at the embassy.
The embassy said protesters around the country set fire to Japanese factories, sabotaged assembly lines, looted department stores and illegally entered Japanese businesses.
"We express regret over what has happened today and ask the Chinese government to ensure the safety of Japanese citizens and businesses in China," it said in a statement.
Anti-Japanese sentiment, never far from the surface in China, has been building for weeks, touched off by moves by Tokyo and fanned by a feverish campaign in Chinese state media. Passions grew more heated this past week after the Japanese government purchased the contested East China Sea islands from their private Japanese owners.
Japan's Kyodo News agency said more than 60,000 people protested in at least 28 Chinese cities, making the anti-Japanese demonstrations the largest since the two countries normalized diplomatic relations in 1972. The protests were expected to continue Sunday.
Although Japan has controlled the uninhabited islands — called Diaoyu in Chinese and Senkaku in Japanese — for decades, China saw the purchase as an affront to its claim and as further proof of Tokyo's refusal to negotiate over them.
Beijing made angry protests and tried to bolster its claim by briefly sending marine surveillance ships into what Japan says are its territorial waters around the islands and by ratcheting up state media coverage. Some news programs featured bellicose commentary.
In Japan, candidates vying to lead the top opposition party called for a tough stand against Beijing in the dispute.
Shigeru Ishiba, a former defense minister seen as a leading contender to head the Liberal Democratic Party, said in an election debate that Japan should send a strong message to China that it will not back down.
"This is something that Japan should do as a nation," he said.
Smaller demonstrations had been staged in China throughout the week. But they boiled over Saturday, especially in Beijing. Outside the Japanese Embassy, the protesters — most of whom appeared to be students — waved Chinese flags and shouted slogans demanding that Japan relinquish the islands. Some hurled rocks, bottles and traffic cones at the embassy. As the crowd grew, police closed off a main thoroughfare to traffic. City buses skipped the stop near the embassy.
Zhang Zhong, a 32-year-old computer worker, said Chinese should stand up against Japan, remembering its brutal occupation of much of China before and during World War II.
"We cannot lose the Diaoyu Islands," he said. "We cannot forget our national shame."
A protest in Shanghai was orderly. About 200 police officers cordoned off the street leading to the Japanese Consulate, allowing protesters in groups of 100 to approach the building. Demonstrators had to register first with police.
But in Changsha, protesters ransacked the Japanese department store Heiwado. They also smashed a police car made by Mitsubishi and overturned another Japanese car, according to online reports. Provincial police asked motorists driving Japanese-brand cars to avoid major thoroughfares and refrain from parking on the street.
Kyodo said protesters ransacked at least 10 Japanese restaurants in Suzhou and damaged a Jusco supermarket run by Japan's Aeon group in Qingdao.
Li Yiqiang, a Chinese activist for the islands, said he opposes violence but that heated behavior is unavoidable when strong feelings boil over.
"When the national emotions erupt, it is understandable that some people would overreact," Li said. "How can you control spontaneous acts?"
The demonstrations came before an anniversary Tuesday of the 1931 Mukden Incident which often triggers anti-Japanese sentiment. The incident was used by Japan as a pretext to invade northern China, and activists have called for more demonstrations on that day.
The Japanese government had hoped its purchase of the disputed islands would calm rather than inflame the situation. The nationalistic governor of metropolitan Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, had proposed buying the islands in April and planned to develop them — something that Beijing would have seen as a powerful attempt to solidify Japan's claim. By purchasing them itself, the central government promised to keep them undeveloped.
Associated Press Television producer Aritz Parra, writer Christopher Bodeen and researcher Henry Hou in Beijing, reporter Eric Talmadge in Tokyo, and photographer Eugene Hoshiko in Shanghai contributed to this report.