Friends in adversity

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 March, 2011, 12:00am

'In the middle of this terrible disaster, we see the most precious treasure of Japan - the hard work, wisdom and indomitable spirit of its people. In their darkest hour, in their deepest trauma, we see this new source of energy. This has been the quality of Japanese people from ancient times.'

This tribute appeared in the latest issue of Southern People's Weekly, a news magazine produced by Guangzhou's Southern Media Group, one of the most famous news conglomerates in China. It was the headline paragraph of an excellent 26-page story on the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis, with dramatic photographs and reports from the scene.

What is remarkable is the praise it showered on Japan and its people, in a country that usually reports them in a negative light and where City of Life and Death - about the 1937 Nanking massacre - was one of the most popular films in 2009.

'The people of Miyagi carried out their responsibilities to the best of their ability and left what they could not control to God and destiny,' Beijing-based Lifeweek magazine said in its 35-page report. 'In the face of this catastrophe, the people retained a spirit of forgiveness and reason, making others feel sympathy and the deepest respect ... They kept their most important quality - a sense of discipline. You can say that they lack creativity but they displayed a spirit of pragmatism.'

This respect and sympathy has translated into an unprecedented flood of support from China. The government sent a 15-member rescue team, the first such mission ever accepted by Japan from China, and many people rushed to donate money, including flamboyant tycoon Chen Guangbiao, who gave one million yuan (HK$1.2 million) in cash and emergency medicine.

Why are China's media reporting the disaster in such a sympathetic way? First, China feels gratitude for Japan's help after the Sichuan earthquake of May 2008. Second, it sees the Japanese as a model to follow if and when a similar disaster strikes China. Recently, the government issued rules to improve the behaviour and manners of its citizens; it is embarrassed by the bad impression many Chinese abroad give of their country.

Third, it sees Japan as a model in terms of prevention. 'Between 2001 and 2010, Japan had 18 earthquakes of more than 6.5 on the Richter scale and not one middle or primary school building collapsed,' the Century Weekly said. 'In the great Niigata quake of October 23, 2004, all the 250 school buildings survived. The most serious damage was a crack in a beam.' The contrast with Sichuan, where dozens of poorly built schools collapsed, was obvious.

Fourth, the two countries are growing more economically interdependent every day. 'China and Japan are close neighbours divided by a narrow strip of water,' the Century Weekly said in its editorial. 'Relations are close and subtle. China is the biggest trading partner of Japan. Japanese factories in China will be hit in their supply of raw materials, parts and components.' So, while Chinese exporters may win orders from firms whose production has stopped, they have everything to gain from a Japanese economy that is open and prosperous.

Fifth, the aid and sympathy is a sign of a nobler and more charitable China, a sentiment expressed by Lai Chen from Fuzhou, in a letter to Lifeweek. He recalled that, two days after the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake, the Beiyang government sent two warships with grain, clothes and medicine to Yokohama to help the victims. This was just eight years after Tokyo had made the '21 Demands' for economic privileges on a weak government in Beijing, leading to nationwide anti-Japanese protests and a boycott of its goods.

Beijing asked the public to end the boycott and help revive Japan's economy. Business and the public joined to buy 300 tonnes of rice, 2,000 bags of flour and a large quantity of charcoal, clothes, medicines and other necessities, which reached Kobe on September 12, the first foreign aid to arrive.

'At that time, the Chinese people were in the middle of the greatest difficulties but chose to give. They chose morality over anger, in the name of helping a neighbour, and showed their highest virtues,' said Chen. 'This humanity earned the respect of the whole world. The two countries were friends for two millennia and had wars and hatred over the last century. Many believe that friendship serves our common interests and is the mainstream of history.'

Mark O'Neill worked as a Post correspondent in Beijing and Shanghai from 1997 to 2006 and is now an author, lecturer and journalist based in Hong Kong