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Chinese boycott of Japanese products over Diaoyus makes no sense

John Gong says any Chinese boycott of Japanese products will prove ineffective, given that it will be hard to sustain and, more importantly, will hurt China's economy just as much

Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, Samuel Johnson once said. What has happened in the latest anti-Japan protests across China shows once again that, after 30 years of economic development, there's still no shortage of scoundrels in this country.

An article in said Beijing was sending mixed messages over these protests. But I do not see any ambiguity - the display of patriotism is certainly lauded, but the display of the kind of scoundrel patriotism, particularly in the form of vandalising property and terrorising society, should be condemned absolutely. The message from Beijing is loud and clear - hunt down the scoundrels, lock them up and prosecute them all!

But to those law-abiding protesters, I say that a boycott of Japanese products might be a tough sell. First, I should say that I am on the government's side in the dispute: the Diaoyu Islands belong to China, no matter from what angle one looks at it - historically, legally or geographically. Beijing should continue to send ships there to exercise its sovereign right.

However, a boycott is not going to be an effective weapon in seeking to influence Tokyo to change its position on the islands. On the contrary, it will hurt the pro-China forces in Japanese politics.

The first question to ask is whether a boycott could be sustained in the first place. Boycotts of Japanese goods have been tried in China on numerous occasions, for numerous reasons, in the past - every time tension has flared in Sino-Japanese relations. But they have never really succeeded in a big way. The boycott calls in 2005 lasted no more than a month.

When I was attending college in the late 1980s, there was a brief anti-Japan demonstration in Beijing that I participated in. I still have vivid memories of student leaders calling for a boycott of Japanese goods. It probably lasted a week at most.


And it's not just in China: boycotts the world over generally fail; in shopping malls, people vote with their wallets, though they may claim to do otherwise. Publicly smashing Japanese cars - even legally - has been tried before: union members in Detroit did so at the height of imports of Japanese vehicles to the US in the late 1980s. But look at the market share of Toyota, Honda and Nissan in the US today. Some US politicians have been calling for a boycott of cheap goods from "red" China for years. Yet, the famously patriotic American public continues to go to Walmart to load up with these items.

More importantly, though, a boycott would hurt China's economy as much as Japan's. The two nations are today so closely intertwined economically that it's even hard to actually define a Japanese product. Parts and components made in Japan probably permeate every sophisticated electronic product. Apple iPhones, Lenovo laptops, Haier television sets, to name just a few, all have things in them that were made in Japan.

Furthermore, many products with Japanese brands names are actually manufactured by joint ventures in China that have Chinese capital and create Chinese jobs. Take the auto industry as an example. Most of the Toyota, Nissan and Honda cars on the market are from joint-venture factories whose better halves are those state-owned enterprises that the government cares so much about. Boycotting cars from them is essentially the same as boycotting those Chinese companies.

Sino-Japanese relations are multi-faceted and transcend the territorial dispute over a few little islands. There are other more important common interests, both economically and politically. In dealing with Japan, it is actually in China's best interests to separate economic issues from political ones. This is the strategy that the US adopts towards China.


There is a lot of misunderstanding and mistrust of China and Chinese people among those in Japanese society, regrettably due to the Japanese government's long-standing nationalistic inculcation of its citizens. This underscores all the more the importance of economic and cultural engagements with all aspects of Japanese society to promote mutual understanding.

This is a time when, thankfully, cool heads still prevail in Beijing. The central government has shown admirable restraint so far to shun the public calls for a boycott. Shopping is a very personal matter. To those who are determined not to buy Japanese goods, I respect your choice. But let's keep it a personal matter, rather than letting the scoundrel patriots ruin both economies.


This is not being soft on Japan. This is smart economics as well as smart diplomacy. On the high seas, however, it's a different matter: China should stand firm against Japan; as firm as a Diaoyu rock.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Economic threads