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On the afternoon of September 16, rows of policemen and security personnel in black T-shirts lined Beijing’s Liangmaqiao Road near the Japanese embassy during protests over the Diaoyu Islands controversy. Security guards were visible everywhere, both in the middle of the road and alongside it.

Near the embassy, the road was closed to traffic, but pedestrians and bicycles could still pass. The area was packed with bystanders, and a rendition of the Chinese national anthem filled the air.

Several young men in their twenties stood in the road and looked very excited. They wore black T-shirts bearing the red Chinese flag. They also held flags in their hands. They told me they worked for a small company and had voluntarily come to join the protest.

When I asked whether they had applied with the police for permission to demonstrate, as Chinese law requires, they simply answered that they had come along with some colleagues.

"On a street nearby, most of the police stood at ease. One approached me as I started photographing the protesters, smiled and said: “You can join the protest.”"Fully armed riot police blocked the entrance to the embassy. The area was also crowded with tank-and-file police officers in blue uniforms. There were a lot of bystanders, but not many joined the march.

Groups of demonstrators took turns marching past the embassy, then circled and passed the building again. They chanted slogans and sang. Most participants were in their twenties. Most were men.

They shouted “The Diaoyu Islands belong to China!” and “Join us, compatriots!” Some of their slogans were less savory, but the protest was nonviolent.

Nearby Japanese and Korean restaurants were closed. They had prudently hung homemade patriotic signs and Chinese national flags in their windows and above the doorways.

On a street nearby, most of the police stood at ease. One approached me as I started photographing the protesters, smiled and said: “You can join the protest.”

“Can I? Won’t I be pulled out?” I asked.

“Since it is me who let you in, who dares to pull you out?” he said.

“But I haven’t applied for permission,” I said.

“It is OK. The organizer has applied,” he said.

Another officer, middle-aged, also encouraged me to join the parade.

“Can I shout ‘Punishment for corruption?” I inquired.

“No, you can’t!” said the middle-aged officer, who had suddenly turned serious.

“Only slogans concerning Diaoyu Islands are allowed,” a younger officer said.

Wang Heyan is a Caixin staff reporter.