Attacking Japan in cyberspace

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 July, 2006, 12:00am

Anti-Japanese sentiment has taken on a new dimension in China. Outrage erupted when internet game players noticed the image of a red sun in the backdrop to an online game this month, and assumed it was the sun design from the Japanese flag. Thousands of online patriots jumped into the game to protest. It was one of the most high-profile virtual demonstrations in a nation where spontaneous protests are not tolerated.

The offending image was spotted by an enthusiast of the NetEase game, The Fantasy of the Journey West. Word spread quickly and, by July 7, around 10,000 gamers from all over the country had vented their distaste. They felt insulted and provoked, they said, that the rising-sun image - associated with wartime Japan - was displayed as the background of a Chinese government office in the game.

But NetEase defended the image, saying it was based on an ancient Chinese painting called 'Sunrise in the East'. Whatever the origins of the image, this latest episode of anti-Japanese feeling illustrates the deep resentment most Chinese still feel towards their neighbour, long after the end of the Pacific war.

This reaction raises a number of questions. First, to what extent can such behaviour be directly linked to the Chinese government's consistently negative portrayal of Japan through state media? And second, why does China still need Japan to be its public enemy No1, so long after the war?

Beijing's role in regularly stirring up anti-Japanese sentiment through the media is obvious. It has issued a tap on the wrist to Tokyo for proposing pre-emptive strikes on North Korea, routine reminders not to forget the 'lessons of history' and outright condemnation of visits to the Yasukuni Shrine by the Japanese prime minister. The mainland public is constantly reminded of Japan's 'militaristic past'.

It's hard to imagine a British government-backed newspaper or TV channel regularly sending out such messages about the Germans. Then again, the history between the two Asian neighbours is different, and the comparison lacks wings. There is still a widespread perception that Japan, unlike Germany, has not properly atoned for the wrongdoings of the past, despite over a dozen official apologies.

But Beijing's reluctance to let old wounds heal does not help. State television last year broadcast emotionally charged reports depicting the cruelty of Japanese invaders to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of the war. That stirred up anti-Japanese feeling once again - as if it were needed.

There can be no doubt that all this influences public perceptions of China's more developed neighbour. But Beijing's complicity in stirring up anti-Japanese sentiment is also evident in what goes on behind the scenes. Last year's mass anti-Japanese demonstrations around China were not spontaneous events - as one was led to believe by the state media. Most were highly organised and well-orchestrated procedures, with busloads of party cadres being shipped in for the day to practise their stone-throwing and shouting skills.

Demonstrators in Guangdong province's Dongzhou village did not enjoy the same leniency when they protested against the seizure of their land in December. Up to 10 of them were killed by police. The difference is that the Dongzhou protest was seen as a challenge to the authorities.

In contrast, a protest against Japan serves the interests of Chinese authorities by focusing citizens' attention on a common enemy - and away from the mainland's social and economic problems. In a country that officially recorded 87,000 violent public-order incidents last year, Japan-bashing would seem to be a welcome distraction - even if it's about an internet game.

Eanna O'Brogain is a Beijing-based journalist