Diaoyu Islands

The anti-Japanese rage that glues Chinese together

Zhou Xun says anti-Japanese sentiments have been a running theme in contemporary Chinese history and, each time they surface, they have had the effect of uniting the people

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 October, 2012, 3:27am

China has been keeping the world's media busy. Early last month, president-in-waiting Xi Jinping suddenly disappeared from the scene. Where was he? Was he sick? Had he had a traffic accident? There was even a rumour suggesting he had been assassinated. In a one-party authoritarian state like China, where there is no transparency and public debate or protest is not permitted, rumours circulate all the time; they form an integral part of popular and political culture. While they are not to be trusted, they do provide some useful insights into Chinese society.

Xi's disappearance and the subsequent rumours may be read as a signal of tension over the Communist Party's leadership transition, due to take place next month. For anyone familiar with Chinese historical romances, assassination is a theme linked to dynastic change. Although imperial rule ended more than 100 years ago, such historical romances continue to capture the popular imagination. One example is the popular 1999 film The Emperor and The Assassin by Chen Kaige.

Instead of suppressing popular rumours, as it did in the 1960s, the Communist Party responded by using different tactics: on September 19, a healthy- looking Xi appeared in front of the world and attacked Japan for "undermining Chinese sovereignty". This happened days after dozens of anti-Japanese demonstrations erupted in China over Japanese control of islands in the East China Sea known as the Diaoyu Islands in China and the Senkakus in Japan. Suddenly, the focus shifted from Xi's disappearance to the Sino-Japanese dispute.

Yet the story missing from the media headlines is that Sino-Japanese disputes are nothing new. In fact, they have been an integral part of nationalistic discourse among the Chinese elite since the end of the 19th century. They have also served as a useful tool for China's leaders to rally domestic support in the 20th century. One must not forget it was China's defeat in the Sino-Japanese war of 1894-5 that helped to glue the Chinese people - or to use Sun Yat-sen's phrase "China's scattered sands" - together.

Having long been regarded as culturally inferior, Japan's victory shocked many Chinese social groups, from the traditional to the modernising elites. Kang Youwei, the leader of the 1898 Hundred Days' Reform pondered the survival of China and the Chinese race. He and his followers, such as Liang Qichao, found inspiration in the Meiji Restoration which had begun in Japan three decades earlier. Kang urged Chinese students "to learn the Japanese way of governing the country" so China "can become stronger than Japan".

In 1896, the first 13 Chinese students were sent to study in Japan. The number increased over the years and, by 1906, the total reached an estimated 20,000. It was regarded as the biggest overseas study programme in the world at the beginning of the 20th century. Among these Chinese students in Japan, numerous societies were organised, propagating nationalistic and revolutionary ideas. In 1905, some societies merged to create the Tong Meng Hui, or the Chinese Revolutionary Alliance, a forerunner of the Kuomintang.

However, learning from Japan did not end Sino-Japanese hostility. Ever since the Russo-Japanese war in 1904-5, Japan had been showing an interest in Manchuria, formerly occupied by the Russians. After the Mukden incident on September 18, 1931, Sino-Japanese hostility flared again, and open war broke out with the Marco Polo Bridge incident on July 7, 1937. China and Japan entered a war that was to last eight years.

Once again, it was a Sino-Japanese war that brought unity to China. The Nationalists, the Communists and various resistance groups worked together in the nation's effort to fight the Japanese invasion. The war inspired writers such as Tian Han to call for the people of China to "Arise!" and not be slaves. Let "our million hearts beat together as one", he cried, "use our flesh and blood to forge our new Great Wall", for "we people in China have arrived at the most perilous time".

His words were turned into a song, March of the Volunteers, which became popular among the Chinese in their resistance against Japanese aggression. In 1981, after the Chinese women's volleyball team defeated their Japanese counterparts on Japanese soil and won the world cup, the song became popular in China again. China had finally wiped out nearly 100 years of humiliation, the official Chinese media coverage suggested. In 1982, March of the Volunteers was officially adopted by the Communist Party as China's national anthem.

China today is very different from China at the end of the 19th century or in the early 20th century. It has now surpassed Japan to become the world's second-largest economy, but a Sino-Japanese dispute can still serve as a useful means in times of leadership transition: it brings unity to the party and the country, and it diverts the world's attention and silences rumours circulating around the country.

Let's also not forget that a group of activists from Hong Kong recently planted the Chinese and Taiwanese flags on the Diaoyu Islands. What does this tell us? Was this all part of a carefully planned "one country, one attitude" exercise?

For most demonstrators on the streets of mainland China, however, the protests are a rare chance to march in groups in their authoritarian motherland. It's rather exciting, and at the end of the day, they might even be rewarded with a voucher to dine in a restaurant - anywhere, as long as it's not Japanese.

Zhou Xun is research assistant professor of history at the University of Hong Kong