September 20, 2012 by Water Wisdom
SEPTEMBER 19, 2012, 8:20 AM
BEIJING — Oh, the irony. This was supposed to be the “Friendship Year of Japan-China People to People Exchanges,” marking 40 years of diplomatic ties between the World War II enemies.
What we’re seeing, instead, is deepening dislike, even hatred, over ownership of a clutch of islands in the East China Sea.
With the U.S. defense secretary, Leon E. Panetta, in town talking about the dispute with his Chinese counterpart, and violent anti-Japanese — sometimes anti-foreign — demonstrations sweeping China, how concerned should the world be?
The short answer: pretty concerned, though more for long-term than short-term reasons. As Deng Yuwen, an editor at Study Times, a magazine run by the Communist Party’s Central Party School, wrote in Singapore’s Lianhe Zaobao newspaper, being nationalist in China is “politically correct,” and the government has long relied on a muscular nationalism to bolster its legitimacy. Read the article, reposted on Chinese-language web sites.
That makes anti-outsider sentiment in China a deep force that could, in theory, be turned against any neighbor. And China has territorial disputes with many neighbors — Japan, but also Vietnam, the Philippines and India (over the state of Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims as part of Tibet.)
But first, the immediate background: starting last weekend, government-tolerated demonstrations have taken place in scores of cities in China, with cars and department stores burned and Japanese-style shops smashed as people protested against the purchase last week by the Japanese government of three of the Diaoyu (as China calls them) or Senkaku (as Japan calls them) islands. Japanese citizens here are frightened to go out. Electronics giants like Panasonic and Canon have shuttered production in local factories, the popular clothing retailer Uniqlo has closed many stores and hundreds of Japanese-style eateries and businesses, including 7-Eleven (it is Japanese-owned in China), were shut. Political visits between Japan and China are canceled and even operas and writers’ meetings are off.
On Tuesday, thousands of angry Chinese marched again in Beijing and Shanghai against Japan. As my colleagues Ian Johnson and Thom Shanker wrote from Beijing, the protests were highly organized but also crudely threatening, not just towards Japanese, but towards foreigners in general.
“One banner showed a Chinese soldier castrating a Japanese soldier, while a popular image depicted Japan’s national flag as a white sanitary napkin with a spot of blood in the middle,” Ian and Tom wrote.
“Some foreigners were queried about their nationality, with Americans lectured for their country’s military alliance with Japan. Foreign men were asked if they had Chinese girlfriends.”
What is going on?
While the surface factors are complicated enough — conflicting territorial claims where both sides arguably are right, because they base their arguments on the logic of different historical periods — what is really worrying about the anger in China is how it is rooted in nationalism encouraged by the government, commentators, both Chinese and foreign, say.
Right-wing nationalism in Japan is a major inflammatory factor. The last time Chinese demonstrated on this scale against Japan was in 2005, over the whitewashing of Japan’s World War II crimes in Japanese history textbooks. Western diplomats blame Japan for this current round of tension, which began in April when the nationalist governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, announced the city was considering buying the islands from the family that owned them. (The Japanese government’s purchase last week aimed at calming tensions by keeping them out of Mr. Ishihara’s hands. Judging by the reaction, it didn’t work.)
Equally, the reaction on the Chinese street is highly flammable. And that’s related to nothing less than a question of the legitimacy of the ruling Communist Party, wrote Mr. Deng: “For a long time, the legitimacy of the Chinese government has been based on two things.
“One is high-speed economic growth. The other is patriotism and nationalism,” with the government long encouraging a virulent brand of nationalism, he wrote. Today, slowing economic growth is weakening the government’s legitimacy, and “the Chinese government very possibly may become increasingly dependent on nationalism and patriotism,” he wrote.
This all makes other countries feel insecure and untrusting towards China, “the result of which may be that China antagonizes everyone in the international arena and there will be endless friction,” he wrote.
Mr. Panetta, meeting with the Chinese Defense Minister, Liang Guanglie, spoke openly on Tuesday about American concerns: “With respect to these current tensions, we are urging calm and restraint by all sides and encourage them to maintain open channels of communication in order to resolve these disputes diplomatically and peacefully,” Reuters reported.
The United States has cause for concern because if violence does erupt — and with a flotilla of Chinese fishing boats allegedly headed for the islands right now, it’s unclear what may happen — then it may be implicated, via its military treaty with Japan.
Parts of the Chinese government and state-run commentariat understand the risks to China of an increasingly bellicose stance on the world stage. Over the last days, too, there has been a spate of calls in state news media for “rational” patriotism, such as some of these in the Global Times, which urged Chinese to “not turn to the dark side.”
But as the economy slows further, people are wondering: how far will the government turn to nationalism to strengthen its own legitimacy? Or is China’s overall economic rise strengthening that sentiment anyway, leading to a broad disregard for its international image? And is the possibility of conflict creeping closer in Asia?