Mao first became a protest icon about a decade ago during mass layoffs that accompanied privatization of state industries. Social injustice, corruption and a yawning rich-poor gap have only worsened since and were themes amid the anti-Japan protests.
Many Chinese are worried about the chairman's re-emergence on the scene. His most ardent supporters tend to be stridently nationalistic and advocate an authoritarian populism. Some protesters called for the release of Bo Xilai, the disgraced politician and a populist who was ousted from the leadership in a political scandal.
Wang Zheng, a Beijing teacher who has been detained for her support of Bo, said the public remembers Mao as a resolute man who showed no ambiguity on sovereignty issues.
"Our government has been spineless on many things — Diaoyu being one of them," she said. "The diplomatic protests are meaningless when they are not backed with actions. The government has behaved the same year after year, making the public more nostalgic about Mao."
Some protesters employed other methods to use the outrage against Japan as a jumping-off point to deliver other messages.
In Beijing, some held up signs saying they would be willing to eat unsafe food to reclaim the islands. Food safety is a big public concern in China.
In Changsha, a small group of protesters at an anti-Japan rally held up a hand-written sign calling for the ouster of corrupt officials. Some of them wore mouth covers marked with an "X."
"That means we cannot freely speak our minds," local protester Wu Qingjun said.
Wu said his group did not catch police attention, but the rights group China Human Rights Defenders reported at least three cases when activists were taken away.
It said Jiao Guobian, a former college teacher, was arrested on Sept. 12 on suspicion of "inciting subversion of state power," allegedly for saying the government should have kept an eye as close on the islands as it does on dissidents.
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