Who's behind anti-Japan tide - party or people?

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 April, 2007, 12:00am

Nationalism is on the rise in China, but scholars disagree on the cause

Rising nationalism in China and Japan is driving a wedge between the two Asian giants, despite their growing interdependence. But there are many factors at play in this love-hate relationship and it would be simplistic to lay the blame on nationalistic sentiments alone.

Rivalry between Beijing and Tokyo has long dominated the political landscape in East Asia and may well determine prosperity or ruin for the region. Yet in spite of their fast-growing trade and increasing needs for co-operation in almost every field - ranging from the nuclear issue in North Korea to environmental protection - ties between the neighbours have moved decidedly backwards in the past few years.

That Premier Wen Jiabao's arrival in Tokyo today will mark the start of the first visit by a Chinese leader to Japan in seven years speaks volumes as to how frosty the relationship has become.

Relations dropped to their lowest point after several unprecedented anti-Japanese protests broke out in mainland cities in spring 2005 - triggered by Tokyo's approval of a new textbook, which critics said whitewashed Japan's wartime atrocities. A few weeks earlier, millions of Chinese signed an online petition against Japan's attempt to gain a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Calls for a boycott of Japanese goods are frequently heard today on the mainland.

The sheer intensity of the anti-Japanese sentiment among young people on the mainland has taken many western observers aback. Internet discussion forums are constantly filled with Japan-bashing - often expressed in hateful and even violent language.

Many critics accused the Chinese government of deliberately stirring up nationalistic sentiment, both as a way to divert attention from internal tension and to boost the Communist Party's monopoly on political power.

Christopher Hughes, director of Asian studies at the London School of Economics, says the resurgence of Chinese nationalism could be traced to the mid-1990s.

While it can be seen as a bottom-up mass phenomenon, he sees the Communist Party as having laid the foundation as, faced with popular disillusionment at communist teachings, it searched for an ideology to fill the vacuum.

'The party has consistently claimed it is entitled to hold a monopoly on political power because of its credentials as the saviour and guardian of a nation threatened and humiliated by a coalition of enemies,' wrote Mr Hughes in an article published on the Open Democracy forum. His view is widely shared in the west as well as in Japan.

However, scholars and observers on the mainland reject the notion that Chinese nationalism is purely an instrument of the party to serve its own domestic and foreign policy goals. They believe the current nationalistic movements are largely spontaneous, not orchestrated by the authorities.

Richard Hu, director of the international and public affairs programme at the University of Hong Kong, said the rise of Chinese nationalism 'is more to do with the growing confidence and pride of the people as China becomes stronger. Education is not the main reason. The education given to the younger generation has no marked differences from their fathers' generation.

'For the communist government, the rising nationalism is as much a challenge as something they could use to serve their purpose,' he said.

'We can see the Chinese government is actually eager to bring these demonstrations under control. They are afraid that once it [the anti-Japanese movement] gains momentum, it will go in an unexpected direction, which they cannot control.'

Tong Zeng , a veteran organiser of anti-Japan protests, disputes the notion that they have been goaded by the government, and says anti-Japanese sentiment has always been strong in China.

'When I was young, the stress of education was always on Sino-Japanese friendship. I started to learn about the wartime past from old people, not my teachers. The Chinese public has always been resentful of what Japan did during the war and the fact they never truly apologised. And it is not just us. Koreans and other Asians are the same,' he said.

Many people question whether the influence and extent of China's rising nationalism have been exaggerated. While the government has become more responsive to public opinion, its foreign policy is still largely decided by pragmatism, not by the public's nationalist sentiments.

'If you look at how China has handled its relations with countries like Russia, India or the western powers, you see pragmatism overwhelms everything else,' said Zhang Fan , a freelance writer in Guangzhou and a frequent contributor to website discussions who cited the example of China's willingness to give up large territorial claims to improve ties with Moscow.

'While the internet is popular in China, it is still limited only to a certain class ... And inevitably, outspoken, emotional and radical views are always going to get a greater share of space on the internet than moderate views,' he said.

Tanaka In, a Japanese student who has lived in Beijing for eight years, said: 'I always thought nationalism among Chinese young people was very radical. But after I came here, I found most of them were quite moderate. I have never felt threatened throughout my stay here.'