Beijing — initially, observers blamed the ferocious anti-Japanese protests that erupted on April 9 on the confluence of four controversial issues — the new textbooks in Japan that allegedly gloss over its WW II atrocities, an oil-driven territorial dispute in the Senkaku islands, Japan’s restatement of military support for Taiwan and Tokyo’s bid for membership in the U.N. Security Council.
“The coming together of all this invoked anti-Japanese feelings that are well rooted in Chinese society,” says Jin Linbo, director of Asia-Pacific Studies at the China Institute of International Studies in Beijing.
Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s public apology for Japan’s colonial and wartime past at the Bandung Conference in Indonesia led the Chinese government to ban further protests, and passions here subsided. But the precision with which the ostensibly impromptu protests began and stopped has led many here to see Beijing’s hand in organizing them.
“The root of the problem is that Japan has been trying in recent years to ‘normalize’ its statehood and play a greater role in international affairs and China is now trying to diminish Japan’s role in the world,” says Jing Huang, a senior fellow at the foreign policy studies program at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.
Since the mid-’90s, Japan has attempted to shake off its post-war guilt and acquire greater political influence in the world. With China also looking to increase its global status, the two nations have been on a collision course, Jing says.
Japan has irked China by restructuring its armed forces, outplaying Beijing in several major business deals and, perhaps most critically, via Koizumi’s decision to worship at the controversial Yasukuni shrine that commemorates Japan’s war dead. For its part, Beijing has riled Tokyo by engaging in an arms buildup, drilling close to the disputed Senkaku islands, opposing Japan’s entry into the U.N. Security Council and deliberately excluding discussions of Japan’s postwar apology and behavior in Chinese textbooks and media.
Steeling attitudes on both sides is a chauvinistic nationalism that is being fanned by those in power in both countries, albeit for different reasons and in different ways.
“In Japan, after 10 years of stagnation, there is a fear that the country has peaked,” Jing says. “Many Japanese feel threatened and try to make up for this loss in confidence with excessive militaristic thinking.”
In China, a Communist Party “lacking in legitimacy because of the mistakes made during the Cultural Revolution and reform process is propping itself up using nationalist credentials,” says Wang Jianwei, chair of the political science department at the University of Wisconsin.
These tendencies have hijacked politics in Japan and China “to such an extent that it denies them rationality in decision-making and may undermine the national interest of both,” Jing says.
For Japan, which only apologized in 1995 for its actions in WWII, the current fracas is drawing attention to what many Asian nations have always considered a belated acknowledgment of their suffering during the war. The fallout might once again raise the issue of reparations that could cost Tokyo billions. The Chinese government, which signed away its right to collect punitive damages from Japan when the two countries reestablished diplomatic ties in 1972, is already supporting compensation lawsuits by Chinese citizens in Japanese courts.
But the Chinese government’s tacit support for the student protests “could come back to create even bigger problems” for it domestically, says the China Insitute’s Jin.
In a society full of pent-up frustrations, “whenever there is an outpouring of passions on the streets the government should be worried about where it will lead,” says Alan Wachman, associate professor of international politics at Tufts University. “The [Tiananmen Square] protests of spring 1989 did not emerge for the purposes they eventually came to represent, and one could see how a protest aimed at expressing irritation to Japan can spill over into other areas or be seen as license to protest by other groups.”
Already, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s March statement to the National People’s Congress (the country’s rubber-stamp parliament) that Japan must not be accepted into the global community until it “faces up to history” is taking the Communist Party toward thin ice.
Jin says, “It is quite difficult for China’s leadership to recognize that China also has to reflect on its history,” both domestically, where the Maoist years resulted in more than 30 million deaths, and overseas in places such as Cambodia, where Maoist China supported the Khmer Rouge as it killed nearly 1.8 million people.
Though Japan, which is trying to soothe things over with China, has still not made that argument, revenge attacks on Chinese banks and schools in Japan have started to occur.
Jing says he expects this to change soon, but can’t be sure. “Things have reached a very critical point. I’ve never seen it so bad,” he says.