The "spontaneous" protests that erupted across China over the weekend were of course nothing of the sort. But by Sunday the demonstrations, growing rowdy and in some cases downright violent, seemed to be taking on a dangerous life of their own.
China's unresponsive and often corrupt administration generates many protests, to be sure, but these are local, isolated, and quickly silenced. However the weekend demonstrations, in as many as 20 scattered cities, could not have arisen without official coordination. All had the same target: Japan and Japanese interests.
Outbursts of this type by "the people" are akin to a declaration that another country must behave or face the storm of Chinese wrath. This spasm is over some uninhabited rocks in the East China Sea, known in Japan as the Senkakus and in China as the Diaoyus. These are an improbable spark for trouble between two countries that do $345 billion (Dh1.27trillion) in annual bilateral trade, even if the area's seabed does have rich gasfields. By unwisely rejecting any compromise, China has driven its anxious neighbours closer together.
These protests do also touch a smouldering seam of genuine anger in the Chinese people, who remember vividly the numerous Japanese atrocities of the 1930s and 40s. Today is the anniversary of the 1931 Mukden Incident, a staged pretext for Japan's invasion of Manchuria. In the 1937 "rape of Nanking" 250,000 or more Chinese were butchered in a prolonged horror overseen by a prince of Japan's imperial family.
So the Chinese public has a short fuse about Japan. Just how short, officials may have underestimated when they encouraged these protests.
A once-in-a-decade change atop China's regime is set for next month, and this fuss may have been stirred up to distract the public from high level scandals. But nationalism is a dangerous toy. As vandalism against Japanese firms increased, with Panasonic, Canon and other Japanese companies closing factories, China's media began denouncing violence.
Both domestically and internationally, then, China has been handling this issue imprudently; leaders are now stuck with their absolute claims.
Japan, too, is indulging in brinkmanship: last week the government in Tokyo bought the islands from a Japanese family it called the owner, an empty gesture which, predictably, roiled the Chinese. Provocation can lead too quickly to misjudgement and to violence.
China and Japan are highly interdependent, and linchpins of the global economy. They must find a better way to settle their territorial disputes.