Chinese Nationalism Boils Below The Surface. Japan Is The Latest Country To Feel The Fury Of Protesters
Gu Suhua writes from Beijing: Anger at the purchase of disputed islands by Japan is escalating. Protests have spread across China like wildfire. Buses have been requested not to stop outside the Japanese embassy in Beijing. A travel agency has cancelled visits to Japan by 50,000 Chinese to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the normalisation of relations between the two countries. Customers have stopped buying Japanese products in supermarkets. Some owners of Japanese made cars apparently have set fire to them.
What the hell is going on?
The islands of the East and South China Seas have been in dispute for generations. China was an inward looking empire for centuries and devoted little attention to islands off its shores. Then the arrival of European powers weakened the Middle Kingdom further. They laid claim to those of commercial value. That is why many of them have Portuguese, Spanish and English names.
Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931 and moved into the rest of China in 1936. Hence Tokyo could lay claim to any islands it liked. The Nationalist government under Chiang Kai-shek, embroiled in a war against Japan and then against the communists, was in no position to solve the problem of who owned which islands.
When the communists took over in 1949, Mao Zedong declared that the country was going to get up ‘off its knees’. The Chinese felt deeply humiliated by the way Europeans and Japanese had treated them. It had lost territory to many states and the task was to put the country together again. One China became a clarion call. Hong Kong and Macau (a Portuguese colony) returned in 1999 but Taiwan remains outside Beijing’s control.
The Han Chinese have always regarded themselves a special people. The name of the country, literally the Middle Kingdom, reflects the fact that it is the centre of the world.
In order to increase their legitimacy, the communists presented themselves as the defenders of the Chinese nation. They used nationalism as a way of binding the Han together. School textbooks portray the period from the first Opium War (1839-42) to the communist takeover as a ‘century of humiliation’. The greatest opprobrium is directed at the Japanese because of their aggression between 1931 and 1945. As one protester said yesterday: ‘The government taught us to be anti-Japanese’. The slightest conflict with Japan now evokes a violent nationalist response. It appears that the present protests are not being directed from above as has happened on previous occasions of Sino-Japanese tension. However, authorities are not acting against demonstrators.
Japan is seeking greater investment and trade with its neighbour. The present display of nationalism is leading to less of both.
The Philippines which is in dispute with Beijing over islands in the South China Sea has renamed the region, the West Philippine Sea. Needless to say it will act like a red rag to a bull.
Why is Beijing in territorial disputes with so many of its neighbours? One is the obvious fact that sovereignty of many islands is a matter of contention. Had the Chinese empire been a great maritime power it would have claimed these islands long ago. Needless to say the European powers could not agree among themselves who owned which island. The rise of Japan in the second half of the 19th century led immediately to it claiming territory beyond its shores.
Another reason is that there are probably rich deposits of oil, gas and minerals under the ocean. Prospecting for hydrocarbons by Vietnam in the South China Sea has already led to stand offs with the Chinese navy. So the commercial value of these islands, many of them uninhabited, is a powerful reason to claim them.
Another reason is the rising military power of China. It has been expanding its navy and patrolling these waters. This has led to America declaring that freedom of navigation is a strategic objective. Of course, Beijing rejects this and does not regard a US presence in East and South East Asian waters as legitimate. Vietnam now has friendly relations with America. It is one of the states which hopes that a US presence in the region will protect it from rising Chinese power.
Nationalism is just under the surface in China and manifests itself when the people feel that their country has been slighted. School textbooks need to be revised and a more balanced presentation of recent Chinese history taught. These protests harm China as much as Japan. China needs the transfer of Japanese technology and know how.
What will happen if the next perceived slight to China’s dignity comes from America? Both countries have too much to lose to permit the violence, evident in the Muslim world, to explode in China. After 1949, the US was the great enemy. The Soviet Union took over as the bogeyman in the late 1950s. This relationship was only normalised in the late 1980s. Now it appears that Japan is the target for Chinese ire. Time for cool heads to take over and resolve the present problem.