BEIJING - Protests against Japan for its control of disputed islands spread across more than a dozen cities in China and turned violent at times Saturday, with protesters hurling rocks at the Japanese Embassy and clashing with Chinese paramilitary police before order was restored.
Thousands of protesters gathered in front of the embassy in Beijing. Hundreds tried to storm a metal police barricade but were pushed back by riot police armed with shields, helmets and batons. A few made it through but were quickly taken away by plainclothes police. Protesters also threw rocks and burned Japanese flags.
Protests were more orderly in most other cities, though in the southern city of Changsha protesters smashed a police car made by Mitsubishi, a Japanese brand, according to online reports.
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.
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 lodged 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.
A Japanese Embassy employee declined to comment Saturday on the protests.
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 - 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."
In Shanghai, 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 first register with police.
The demonstrations came before the anniversary Tuesday of the 1931 Mukden Incident which often triggers anti-Japanese sentiment. The incident was used as a pretext by Japan to invade northern China, and activists have called for more demonstrations Tuesday.
The swelling Chinese anger over the disputed islands comes even though the Japanese government had hoped its purchase 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 an attempt to solidify Japan's claim. By purchasing them instead, 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.