Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to a memorial where war criminals are enshrined elicited little response in China. Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg
Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to a memorial where war criminals are enshrined elicited little response in China. Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg

When Japanese leaders visit Tokyo’s notorious Yasukuni shrine to the country’s war dead, Chinese microbloggers tend to notice. In April, after 168 members of Shinzo Abe’s right-wing government visited the shrine (where, among others, 14 World War II-era Class-A war criminals are enshrined), the search term “Yasukuni” lingered on Sina Weibo’s trending topic list for days. In the wake of Shinzo Abe’s personal visit to the shrine on Friday, one would surely have expected that “Yasukuni” would have dominated China’s trending topic lists over the weekend. Yet curiously, the term hasn’t appeared at all.

Why not? The likely answer is that the Chinese government learned its lesson after anti-Japanese riots spread nationwide in September 2012. The ostensible cause of those protests was the purchase of a set of disputed islands in the East China Sea by the Japanese government. Rapidly, though, patriotic online fury at Japan’s claims over the barren archipelago -- known as the Senkakus in Japan and Diaoyu in China -- expanded into outrage at the Chinese government’s measured, diplomatic approach to the crisis. “Diaoyu” shot to the top of microblog trending topic lists, and popped in and out of them for weeks.

While Chinese authorities seemed inclined at first to tolerate the protests, they clearly worried that the unrest might disrupt the economy and possibly grow to encompass other simmering resentments. In an otherwise sympathetic editorial, People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party, reminded Chinese citizens that the defense of the nation's sovereignty “requires fierce assertion, but at the same time it demands that we act in a civilized manner and abide by the law.”

In the near-term, that carefully phrased admonishment meant a quick end to the protests. (No Chinese government relishes the sight of its citizens rallying in the streets, no matter the issue.) It also presaged a sustained effort to curtail the most rabid online anti-Japanese sentiments -- whether directed at Japan, or at the Chinese government.

The resolve to channel online anger at Japan became obvious in late 2012 and early 2013, as military tensions between the two nations escalated. Despite the frictions, state-owned media ratcheted down its rhetoric and -- equally important -- the various spats didn't trend on Chinese social media. In all likelihood, censorship played a key role: trending topic lists are often manipulated to downplay some issues and highlight others (in the latter case, to the benefit of advertisers).

This time around, the government has actively sought to propagandize against any emotional reaction to Abe's visit. For the last few days, several prominent government-affiliated voices have suggested that though anger at Japan's prime minister is warranted, it shouldn’t be expressed via violence or organized protest.

Unexpectedly, the most vocal proponent of this line has been the nationalist, state-owned Global Times newspaper -- an outlet widely associated with more hawkish elements of China’s military. In the wake of Abe’s Yasukuni visit, the paper has become an advocate of patriotic reserve, rather than rage. “I don’t think Chinese need to be angry or excited as we used to be,” tweeted Hu Xijin, editor of the Global Times, shortly after news of Abe’s visit broke on Friday, via Sina Weibo. “China is now strong and mature.” The next day, the Global Times itself editorialized that for Chinese to express their anger in organized protests would be, well, unpatriotic:

“Massive rallies nationwide, as happened in the past, are not necessary either. It's too flattering to Japan. Mostly a public protest takes place when a weaker nation tries to express its anger. We should no longer express our anger as if we are empty-handed.”

Of course, as Chinese propagandists surely know, such reasonableness isn't likely to salve the anger of citizens offended by Abe’s visit, much less to bolster the Communist Party's reputation as the defender of Chinese national honor. Military action would do the trick, but absent that reckless approach the Chinese government took the highly unusual tack of issuing an aggressive statement on Saturday from Yang Jiechi, China’s former Foreign Minister, and current Secretary General of China’s Foreign Affairs Leadership Group.

Rarely do senior Chinese figures speak out on foreign affairs; rather, they prefer that semi-anonymous spokesmen do the job for them. Yet by speaking himself, Yang -- a senior policy maker -- did what no spokesman could do: he raised the highly personal sentiments and insults in the statement to the level of national policy:

“We urge Abe to give up any illusion and mend his ways, otherwise he will further discredit himself before Japan's Asian neighbors and the international community and end up being an out-and-out loser in history.”

Perhaps Yang’s statement succeeded in satiating Chinese microbloggers' impatience for more aggressive action against Japan. For the moment, there’s really no way to tell. Nobody is rioting and, for now at least, that counts as something of a victory.

(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is the author of "Junkyard Planet," a book on the global recycling industry.)