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A Chinese demonstrator attends a protest against Japan’s “nationalising” of Diaoyu Islands, known as the Senkakus in Japan. Photo: AFP

Japan’s local officials have taken to criticising Beijing – and Chinese diplomats aren’t happy about it

  • Envoys from Beijing have been accused of stepping up pressure on city and prefectural governments that adopt resolutions critical of China
  • Their complaints come as Tokyo and other US allies increase public scrutiny of Xinjiang and Hong Kong, and as tensions escalate in the East China Sea

Local Japanese officials have in recent weeks called attention to the actions of Chinese diplomats in Japan, accusing them of pressuring city and prefectural governments that adopt resolutions critical of Beijing.

Their complaints have surfaced as Tokyo and other allies of the United States increase their public scrutiny of China’s policies in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, and amid escalating tensions in the East China Sea, where Tokyo and Beijing are at odds over a group of Japanese-controlled islands known as the Diaoyu Islands in China and the Senkakus in Japan.

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Last week, China’s ambassador to Japan, Kong Xuanyou, said Tokyo had “seriously disturbed China-Japan relations” by taking a dismissive attitude towards issues relating to Taiwan, Xinjiang and Hong Kong.

The Sankei newspaper last month reported that an official of the Saitama Prefectural Assembly had received a call from a person identifying themselves as a diplomat from the Chinese embassy in Tokyo.

Kong Xuanyou, China’s ambassador to Japan. Photo: Xinhua
The assembly, which governs the prefecture, in July adopted a resolution requesting that the Japanese government open an investigation into allegations of human rights abuses in China’s westernmost province of Xinjiang, and for Tokyo to make a formal protest if such allegations proved true.

According to the official who answered, the caller stated that Xinjiang was a part of China and any comments on the Uygur minority were considered to be meddling in Beijing’s “core interests” and “domestic affairs”.

The Sankei reported that the diplomat said the assembly’s resolution was “highly regrettable as it pours cold water on the friendly mood” between China and the prefecture.

It also said the Chinese diplomat had asked how many times assembly member Masato Suzuki had been elected. Suzuki told the newspaper he had perceived it as a form of pressure.

Meanwhile, a Chiba City Assembly spokesperson confirmed to This Week in Asia that it had received a call from the Chinese embassy soon after its December 2019 adoption of a resolution expressing concern about the human rights and security situation in Hong Kong as anti-government protests in the city gathered momentum.

In that instance, the Chinese diplomat said the resolution “is not in the interests of bilateral relations”.

The disputed islands known as the Diaoyu Islands in China and the Senkakus in Japan. Photo: Kyodo

The Chiba spokesperson said the official who took the call “only listened to what the diplomat said and made no other response”.

The Chinese embassy in Tokyo did not respond to a request for comments. Beijing has been accused of stepping up its “wolf warrior” diplomacy in recent years, with the nation’s envoys willing to be more confrontational, combative and quick to denounce any criticism of China.

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In 2019, Zhao Lijian, at the time a counsellor at the Chinese embassy in Pakistan, hit back hard against the US government on Twitter. In a series of messages, he claimed the US had no right to criticise China about human rights abuses when it had problems with income disparity, racism and gun violence.

That approach has been further ratcheted up in response to claims Beijing mishandled the coronavirus outbreak early last year.

A former Japanese diplomat with experience of foreign postings said the Chinese diplomats’ efforts to subvert democracy at the local level in Japan were unacceptable.

“Since the start of the Xi [Jinping] administration in 2012, we have seen China aggressively extend its foreign policy aims and become more active on all fronts,” said the diplomat, who declined to be named. “But it could be argued that they are being so aggressive because they have become fully aware that they are increasingly encircled by the rest of the world. It’s an offensive because they are on the defensive.”

He also dismissed suggestions this approach would have an impact on Japanese politics.

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“These sorts of resolutions are possible because Japan has the rule of law and the right to free speech,” he said. “Those are very important principles, we Japanese hold them dear and we won’t give them up.”

Norihiro Uehata, a member of the Kobe City Assembly, said diplomats at the Chinese embassy in Tokyo and the consulate general in Osaka had been pressuring him since he first drew up a resolution taking Beijing to task for its human rights record relating to Uygurs, Tibetans, and “followers of religion and democracy activists” while an assemblyman for the city assembly of Kamakura, just to the south of Tokyo.

Pro-independence demonstrators in Hong Kong. Photo: AP

He said the resolution, which was adopted by the city assembly in June 2016, was also the first in Japan to call for Taiwan – which Beijing regards as a renegade province – to be recognised as independent and be able to join international organisations.

“I believe that resolution came as a shock to the Chinese government – and maybe they found it even harder to accept because I am a member of the Liberal Democratic Party,” Uehata said, referring to Japan’s ruling party.

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Uehata said he believed the embassy was attempting to quash any statements that ran counter to the policies of the Chinese Communist Party, even if they were from small cities with limited power to influence public or political opinion.

Attacks on his social media messages have continued since he moved to Kobe from his previous post in Kamakura, he said, adding that he believed China “does not respect human rights, liberal ideas or the concept of democracy”.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Diplomats accused of putting pressure on Japanese officials