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Anti-Beijing
26-04-05, 16:11
Today anti-Japan, tomorrow anti-Beijing?

By Aaron Kyle Dennis

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SHANGHAI - What's at stake when 20,000 people in Shanghai take to the streets? On Saturday, April 16, at about 9:30 in the morning, throngs of Chinese took to the streets around Shanghai's People's Square. Armed with eggs, bottles, stones and a long-standing anti-Japanese nationalist sentiment, these angry patriots flowed like a river through 16 kilometers of the city, merging like flooded tributaries into a raging torrent of about 20,000 outside Tokyo's consulate in the Hongqiao district.

Leading news media have cited several causes for the demonstration. This month, Tokyo approved several revisionist junior-high-school history textbooks penned by nationalist scholars, which many in Asia feel whitewash Japan's wartime past. April 13 saw the announcement that Japan had begun procedures to allocate test-drilling rights for natural gas to private contractors in a disputed area of the East China Sea. Many Chinese are also indignant over Tokyo's efforts to seek a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

Sino-Japanese relations have a history of tension. In stark contrast to postwar Germany, Japan has never been viewed as repentant by its Asian neighbors. Contributing to this perception are Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's repeated visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japanese World War II dead, including convicted war criminals. China, for its part, conspicuously downplays economic aid packages it has received from Japan - some 3,000 trillion yen (US$27 billion) since 1980 - while reporting on any news that casts a negative light on its wartime adversary.

Complicating this relationship was Koizumi's September 27, 2004, cabinet reshuffle, in which the conservative right wing gained several key administrative positions, including chief cabinet secretary and minister for justice. Especially inflammatory to many Chinese was the appointment as foreign minister of Nobutaka Machimura, member of a conservative faction of the governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). It was Machimura who in March 2001, acting as minister of education, culture, sports, science and technology, approved the first two editions of the controversial junior-high-school history texts, The New History Textbook and The New Civics Textbook.

Japan's replaced foreign minister, Yoriko Kawaguchi, represented the more moderate side of Tokyo, and was known for working toward friendly relations in the East China Sea.

Tensions between Beijing and Tokyo further intensified after a joint statement on February 19 issued from Washington by the US-Japan Security Consultative Committee, outlining a new set of security objectives and recognizing Taiwan as "a mutual security concern". Beyond extending Japan's military cooperation with the United States, the agreement also pressures for a revision of the war-renouncing article of Japan's peace constitution. Doing so would enable a transformation of Japan's Self-Defense Forces (SDF), allowing aggressive military operations - a move vehemently opposed by Beijing, which already understands the new US-Japan initiative as an effort at containing China's rising military power in the Asia-Pacific region.

Political relations between the two countries have taken a turn for the worse in recent months.

First came the Chinese storm over Japan's political maneuvering to gain a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. In his blueprint on March 21 for a revamped United Nations, Secretary General Kofi Annan suggested that big financial donors to the UN, such as Japan and Germany, would be prime candidates for permanent Security Council membership. This suggestion, along with public support for Japan's bid from the US and additional efforts by Tokyo to court fellow candidates Germany, India and Brazil, as well as to "buy" the support of developing countries with economic aid packages, has motivated more than 22 million private Chinese citizens to air their opposition via an online petition.

Beijing is in a quandary on how to balance anti-Japanese public sentiment with its long-term economic interests (the Chinese Ministry of Commerce recently reported that Japan currently has invested $47.9 billion in China, and China is Japan's largest trading partner. If China, as one of five permanent Security Council members with veto power, chooses to use its veto against Japan, it will be the most direct confrontation between the two countries since they re-established diplomatic ties in 1972 - and one of the boldest assertions of Chinese authority in recent years.

Then on April 5, the Japanese Education Ministry approved additional editions of the controversial textbooks, scorned for obscuring Japan's World War II history. Critics cite textbook statements that evidence for the 1937 Nanjing Massacre (in which an estimated 300,000 Chinese civilians were murdered in six weeks at the hands of Japanese solders) were "inconclusive" and "under debate". They say the textbooks also play down or ignore mention of Asian "comfort women", the system of sex slaves from China, Korea and other Asian countries set up by the Japanese military and forced into prostitution in order to "comfort" Japanese soldiers.

The revised editions also claim that Japan did not invade Asian countries but liberated them from Western powers, and blame Western nations for the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war (1894-95). In remonstration of Tokyo's approval of the texts, a trade association for Chinese chain stores called for a boycott of products made by Japanese companies such as Asahi and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which it claims supported the revisions. Local media reported that in cities in northeastern China where the Japanese army first made inroads into Chinese territory in 1931, Japanese goods already had been pulled from supermarket shelves and bars earlier this month.

Finally on April 13, Tokyo began processing applications allowing private companies to explore, test, and drill for natural gas in the disputed Chunxiao gas field, an area of the East China Sea claimed by both countries. This development followed on the heels of an April 4 inquiry to Beijing about the details of its extraction operations, which Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Shoichi Nakagawa claimed extended into Japan's territory.

Beijing, which began drilling last year, maintains that its operations are restricted to Chinese-controlled waters, and has refused to stop its operations or share information about them, citing Japan's rejection of proposed measures for co-exploitation and joint exploration. This is the first time the Japanese government has granted drilling rights in the area, which until now it has refrained from doing, mostly to avoid provoking China, although companies had requested exploration rights as early as 1970.

There is speculation about Beijing's role in promoting the recent anti-Japan demonstrations in reaction to these events. Arguments contributing to this perspective include the amount of press coverage given to the initial protests in Chengdu and Beijing - an anomaly of Chinese news media, which notoriously silence reports on mass demonstrations - as well as what Japan's Foreign Ministry has deemed Beijing's tacit acceptance of the "destructive and violent actions".

Tokyo stated: "Even though information was available beforehand to infer that there would be a demonstration, nothing was done to prevent it." Japanese Foreign Minister Machimura has filed a formal complaint against Chinese authorities' failure to stop the violence and to protect Japan's diplomatic and commercial facilities from damage. Beijing, blaming Tokyo for inciting the demonstrations, refuses an apology.

It is also true that Communist Party officials have taken measures against the spread of demonstrations. Before the Shanghai protest, municipal government spokeswoman Jiao Yang called for calm and asked residents not to participate in unauthorized demonstrations. A circular passed around various companies and government agencies in Shanghai before the protest asked managers to ensure that their employees obeyed all laws and regulations on protesting. Moreover, state television did not mention the Shanghai demonstrations during evening news reports, in what appeared to be an effort toward curbing hostilities and preserve friendly economic relations. A subsequent protest planned for Beijing also never came to fruition, though hundreds of police still blanketed Tiananmen Square. Finally, many anti-Japan websites have been blocked recently, and universities in Beijing and Shanghai have cut access to online bulletin boards as authorities seek to reassert control over public discourse.

Tokyo, too, has been working to ease tensions. Last Friday in Jakarta, Koizumi expressed "deep remorse" and extended "a formal apology" for his country's World War II aggression. According to Japan's Kyodo News Agency, Koizumi's remarks echoed a 1995 speech of former Japanese prime minister Tomiichi Murayama, marking the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. Although not breaking much new ground in Tokyo's reconciliatory statements, Koizumi's apology is the first public apology offered by a Tokyo official since Tomiichi Murayama in 1995. And the public audience was large. Chinese President Hu Jintao and Chinese Ambassador to South Korea Li Bin, however, both responded to Koizumi's remarks by saying that actions speak louder than words. Hu noted that relations would further improve if Tokyo refused to support any moves toward independence by Taiwan.

The flood of anti-Japan demonstrations then spread to Shanghai, Tianjin and Hangzhou. Waving banners that read "The anti-Japan war is not over yet," and chanting "We love our China, we hate your Japan," and in English "We want war," demonstrators made it undeniably clear they were not merely marching in protest of a textbook or in denunciation of Japan's bid for permanent Security Council membership. More than a dozen Japanese restaurants, shops and bars (many of them Chinese-owned) had rocks flung through their windows and were pelted with crimson-red paint bombs; a Nissan sedan (Chinese-owned) was smashed and overturned, and a police car alleged to be protecting a Japanese passenger had its windshield broken out while onlookers chanted "Kill the Japanese!" Police were standing in lines three-deep, not with the intention to block demonstrators, but to guide them; police behind a professionally printed blue-and-white sign reading; "March route continues in this direction"; police sipping lattes with demonstrators in cafes - these scenes do not even hint at an urge toward suppressing anti-Japanese hostilities.

The question that has arisen out of the big Shanghai demonstration - and those leading up to it over the past few weeks in Chengdu, Shenzhen and Beijing, among others - concerns whether it is on the Chinese government's agenda to allow anti-Japan protesters to voice their opinion publicly. But the bigger question is this: in a new era of online petitions with 22 million signatories and of public demonstrations of 20,000 organized primarily by SMS (short message service) and e-mail, in what ways will Chinese citizens be able to shape future government agendas? It is possible that equipped with an understanding of how to organize en masse and seemingly under the radar of Beijing's censors, younger Chinese may begin encouraging others to take to the streets against corruption and government land seizures, to complain about economic inequality or ideological repression. That is to say, with a slight change of focus, Beijing may see a change of course in its internal affairs towards more turbulent political waters.

Aaron Kyle Dennis is a teacher-ambassador for Pearl S Buck International, working in Zhenjiang, Jiangsu province. Dennis moved to China on the advice of his former professor and friend, Sidney Rittenberg (Li Dunbai), to gain first-hand experience in Asia before returning to graduate school for peace and conflict research. He can be contacted at dennisak@alumni.plu.edu.

(Copyright 2005 Aaron Kyle Dennis.)