No apologies for Chinese grievances

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 April, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 April, 2005, 12:00am

With large-scale and widespread anti-Japan protests going into the third week in Chinese cities, most of the Japanese and western press have chosen to focus on the negative aspects: angry mass gatherings, rock throwing, flag burning, window smashing and the potential for escalation.

An important meeting between Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura and his Beijing counterpart, Li Zhaoxing , over the weekend generated hundreds of headlines. Yet, it all boils down to the fact that China refuses to apologise for the damage caused by the demonstrations.

These reports have exaggerated the reality. Consider this: more than 30 million people have reportedly signed an online petition against Tokyo's bid to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council; yet only a few thousand have moved from cyberspace to city streets, and among them, only a small number have displayed unacceptable behaviour that should be condemned.

But let us not overlook the central question: what are the forces that have mobilised so many people in China, South Korea and around the world in this unprecedented grass-roots movement against Japan on a number of issues? These range from the whitewashing of past war responsibilities in Japanese textbooks to Japan's aspirations as a major player in world affairs. Confusion and misconception characterise most answers.

Some claim that the Chinese government is inflaming the fire of anti-Japan feelings. That is nonsense. There is, so far, no convincing evidence to support this. On the contrary, the domestic press was ordered not to report the demonstrations; party and work units were given directives not to go on to the streets; police messages were sent out to dissuade people from continuing the protests; and some protest organisers have been held. Still, people are defying the orders.

Others say that Beijing has given at least tacit approval to these activities. That might be the case. But the mainland government may have as much to lose from the movement as it has to gain if things slip out of control. And tacit approval for demonstrations, or rather, a reluctance to crack down on them, is a far cry from encouraging or organising such activities.

Ordinary people's desires may coincide with Beijing's agenda, but it is wrong to confuse the public's voice with that of the government.

Still others insist that because Beijing has promoted a kind of patriotic education in the people, even though there is no direct link between Chinese leaders and the ongoing protests, it still has to bear much of the responsibility. That is second-guessing at best.

And some point out that the Communist Party has much to apologise for in its own human rights record, and that Chinese textbooks also intentionally omit undesirable material. That is true, but it misses the point. The authorities will have to face that reality once the public rises up to demand changes in these areas, and that day will come. But that is not why the people are demonstrating today. Nor should such problems with the Chinese government be exploited as an excuse for Japan to deny its own past war crimes, or worse, to justify them.

So, Chinese people are organising themselves to express their frustration that Japan is not coming to terms with its past war responsibilities; they are saying 'no' to Tokyo's security council application; Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's hardline China policy over the past four years has backfired; and the damage to Sino-Japanese relations is severe.

It is hypocritical of those self-labelled liberals who would not hesitate to support Chinese people demonstrating over domestic issues to now refuse to recognise their collective cry against injustice done by a right-wing Japanese government.

Wenran Jiang, twice a Japan Foundation Fellow, is an associate professor of political science at the University of Alberta, Canada