“Beijing’s Dangerous Game”

Perry Link in the NYRoB on the anti-Japan protests, good as always:

Many have ascribed the vehemence of the protests to deep-rooted anti-Japanese sentiment linked to injustices committed by Japan eighty years ago. But there is little evidence to support this. Rather the protests appear to have everything to do with the interests of China’s current rulers, at a moment when the top leadership in Beijing is in turmoil.

The Chinese state media suggest that Chinese people have long memories of Japan’s invasion of China in 1931, when the Japanese army carried out a brutal massacre of civilians in the capital city of Nanjing in 1937. According to them, what we see today are echoes of this longstanding “national insult.” But there are not many people in China today who personally remember the 1930s. Recollections of these distant events handed down within families are not that strong, and moreover must compete with some terrible memories of the intervening Mao era. The anti-Japan expression that we see on the streets today springs largely from other sources.

In 1985, nine years after Mao’s death, a Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall opened in Nanjing. China’s textbooks and media also began to mention the massacre, and the government began to use the issue as a way to stimulate nationalism and draw support to itself. The anti-Japan vitriol that we see in the streets today comes much more from that “education” since the 1980s than it does from memories of the 1930s. In 1998 Jiang Zemin, China’s president, visited Japan and demanded a written apology for Japan’s invasion of China. Public demonstrations against Japan have flared occasionally since then, often after government prodding but always under government monitoring and control.

It is significant that the numbers of protesters, by Chinese standards, are small. Crowds are in the hundreds, rarely over a thousand. By contrast the crowd at the pro-democracy demonstrations at Tiananmen in 1989 reached a million at its peak. There is no doubt which cause had the deeper appeal. Today, too, measured in numbers, the complaints of Chinese protesters are overwhelmingly not about uninhabited islands but about things closer to home—corruption, pollution, land annexation, special privilege, and abuse of power—and the usual adversaries today are not Japan but Chinese officials and the wealthy people associated with them.

From the regime’s point of view, the reporting is the whole point. The purpose of instigating protests is to generate “mass opinion” to serve a political purpose. Let me offer an especially clear example from a different context. In March, 2008, in Lhasa, Tibet, young Tibetans went on a rampage against Chinese shop owners. Some people say that agents provocateurs were at work, some say not. But in either case, credible eyewitnesses on both sides reported that for several hours Chinese police stood by and did nothing. They watched the looting and burning of stores while reporters from state-owned media made video recordings. Only when the taping was over did the police step in, arresting hundreds. Then, during the ensuing seventy-two hours, Chinese television—nationwide—showed and re-showed the video footage, explaining that the Dalai Lama, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, had been the instigator of the mayhem. Twenty days later, when young Tibetans ventured onto the streets of Lhasa and seemed ready to protest again, the police quelled them instantly. This time there was no need for videotapes.

What is it, today, that the people at the top in China want to achieve by stimulating and advertising anti-Japan sentiment? They do not say, of course, so the world must guess, but in broad outline the guessing isn’t very hard. The people at the top, who are used to maintaining a smooth façade, have every reason right now to distract attention from the unexpectedly messy handover of power now taking place, the results of which are hugely important to them.

The men at the top are very adept at staying there, and doubtlessly are aware of the dangers of this game. To them, stirring up and giving media attention to anti-Japan sentiment is a way to further their psychological engineering of the Chinese public. They know that it carries a risk. But the potential damage to the regime that could come from letting the public concentrate on their power transition, or get a deeper look into how corruption and special privilege work, is even greater.

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Filed under 2012 power transfer, Communist Party, Japan, protests

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