Gu Suhua writes from Beijing: More anti-Japanese protests in the capital and other Chinese cities. The interesting thing about these protests is that both the Chinese and Japanese governments seem to be doing their best to prevent a further deterioration of relations. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the normalisation of relations. What is different is that previous flare ups in 2005 and 2010 were clearly orchestrated from above. The goal was to put pressure on Tokyo to make concessions – even cede sovereignty to China. So is this an example of people power embarrassing both governments?
China is set for a once in a decade change of leaders during and after the 18th Party Congress next month. It needs stability. So it could be that Chinese hotheads see this as an opportune moment to oblige the Chinese authorities to take a strong line against Japan. Japan is facing a general election next year. The ruling party is not popular and it is likely that a coalition government will have to be formed. Coalition governments have been known to fall apart when faced with a serious foreign policy challenge.
Japan benefits from trade and investment in China. It is keen to expand both. After all China and Japan account for three quarters of East Asian GDP and 15 per cent of world trade. The present brouhaha is having a negative effect on economic relations. It is compounded by the fact that the Chinese economy is slowing and imports and exports have declined this year compared to last year. In other words, the Japanese government wants to defuse the present crisis as quickly as possible.
The protests are about the ownership of uninhabited Senkaku or Diaoyu islands. Activists from Shanghai, Taiwan and Hong Kong planned to sail to the disputed islands and plant a Chinese flag on the anniversary of the end of World War II. The Chinese and Taiwanese governments prevented their activists from sailing but those from Hong Kong made it to the island and planted a flag. How did the Japanese government react? It simply deported the activists. It also set in motion plans to purchase the lease of the islands from the present private owner. Japan has banned its citizens from visiting the islands for fear of provoking Chinese nationalists. Tokyo’s mayor and Japanese nationalists countered by attempting to acquire the islands and establishing a Japanese presence there. However the ship sent to survey the islands to assess their value was refused permission by the Japanese government to land. Beijing did not protest because the Japanese had not actually landed on an island.
If both governments sought to play down the incidents, the press did not. In each country, those who had landed on the islands were feted as local heroes. Their patriotism was contrasted with the pusillanimity of the respective governments. Activists attacked Japanese cars and restaurants. The police did not intervene.
Chinese schools teach that the period from the Taiping Rebellion to the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 was a ‘century of humiliation’. During this time Britain, France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Russia and Japan helped themselves to parts of the Middle Kingdom. Japan ruled Taiwan from 1905 to 1945. It invaded Manchuria in 1931 and advanced into the rest of China from 1936. There are memorials to the soldiers and civilians who died in Japanese attacks in many towns and villages. The inscriptions are enough to make the blood boil at Japanese behaviour. So it is not surprising that any perceived encroachment by Japan on Chinese claimed territory can spark a violent nationalist response. On this occasion, it appears to have come from below and not been stage managed by the authorities. If this is the case, people power has scored another victory.