BEIJING (AP) — In an apparent attempt to head-off large-scale street demonstrations, Chinese state newspapers have criticized scattered protests against KFC restaurants and other U.S. targets sparked by an international tribunal's ruling last week that denied Beijing's claim to virtually the entire South China Sea.
The commentaries on Tuesday and Wednesday reflect the ruling Communist Party's strict demands for social order. Previous protest movements have sometimes spun out of control, leading to violence against foreign businesses and attacks on their Chinese customers.
Protesters have gathered in recent days outside KFC restaurants in several cities, unfurling banners and calling for a boycott of the U.S. chain. Reports on social media say customers have been accused of being unpatriotic and "losing face for their ancestors."
Such actions interfered with legitimate business and humiliated customers, the official China Daily said Wednesday, echoing an editorial the previous day in the ruling Communist Party's flagship newspaper People's Daily.
"Instead of being patriotic, it is their jingoism that does a disservice to the spirit of devotion to the nation," China Daily said. "Those who organize such activities without going through the necessary procedures and unlawfully harass others in the name of patriotism should be held accountable according to the law."
China's authoritarian government generally forbids most forms of protest, but is also wary of being accused of stifling patriotism.
While the arbitration case was brought by the Philippines, China has accused the U.S. of encouraging its ally to challenge what it sees as China's ancient rights to control over the vast waterway that holds rich fishing stocks and a potential wealth of natural resources.
China refused to participate in the arbitration and has refused to acknowledge the ruling. Since it was handed down last Tuesday, the government and state media have kept up a steady drumbeat of criticism, while the powerful military says it won't be deterred from actions including the development of man-made islands built atop reefs in the South China Sea.
Along with the KFC protests, images have circulated online of young Chinese wearing scarves emblazoned with patriotic slogans smashing their iPhones in protest over the ruling. Such actions are generally ascribed to the internet-savvy "angry youth" born in the 1980s or after and raised on a steady diet of aggressive nationalism.
Yet, the KFC protests have also sparked a backlash online, with some KFC customers posting photos of themselves sitting in front of a bucket of chicken with axes or other weapons and signs reading "patriotic hooligans, try harassing me and I'll take you out."