The streets of Chinese cities are no longer full of YouTube comments in human form; it was quiet as a mouse round the Japanese embassy this morning, though a coupe of streets are still closed off. In a quick e-mail exchange with a US embassy buddy last night he noted that if the protests were allowed to go on today, they would be seriously worried, so this is a good sign for non-crazy decisions in the future. The prospect of an actual armed conflict seemed very real the last few days; it's still not receded, despite how mindblowingly stupid it would be, because the fishing season's restarted and there's the unhappy prospect of another collision, seizure, or similar. But the State-backed jingoism has been everywhere; I called my father-in-law and found his ringtone had been replaced - by his phone company - with a "Defend the Diaoyu Islands! The Diaoyu Islands belong to China!" message.
I've been thinking about the protests as a signal. Japan badly misread the Chinese reaction to nationalizing the islands, which Tokyo saw, at least in part, as a way to forestall Ishihara and the far-right getting their hands on them. One reason they misread it is because China has exhausted its rhetorical responses from overuse. When every move is "illegal," "an insult," and China is constantly "ready to use force," it becomes very hard for others to judge exactly what is and isn't a real red-line issue.
There's an interesting chapter in Codes of the Underworld where Diego Gambetta discusses self-harm among criminals and prisoners as a noli me tangere message; hurting yourself to demonstrate your own determination and willingness to take extreme measures if attacked. I think that's one way to look at the protests; Beijing is showing that it's willing to harm itself - through both economic damage and loss of reputation/face - to indicate that it's serious about future steps.
That doesn't necessarily mean force, though it doesn't rule it out; it might point instead to a willingness (or an attempt to get Japan to believe that will exists) to put economic sanctions into effect that would fuck up both the Japanese and Chinese economies. Given the state of the Chinese economy and the sensitivity of the political timing, I think that's to some extent a bluff, but the protests make it, at the very least, a convincing bluff.