China’s Japan-Bashing

October 19th, 2015
in Op Ed

by John West, Asian Century Institute

China's Japan-bashing only started after the Tiananmen Square incident. But it will be difficult to turn off any time soon, argues John West.

Follow up:

China is at it again, bashing Japan, its favorite whipping boy. But as China regularly whips itself up into a frenzy over Japan, it is perhaps easy to forget that China's modern anti-Japanese sentiment is only a recent phenomenon.

Japan's collective self defense

China's bashing this time round is because of new laws that will allow Japan's Self Defense Forces (SDF) to engage in "collective self defense". The laws, pushed through the Japanese parliament by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, allow the SDF to help allies like the US who may be at war, help keep sea lanes open, participate in peacekeeping activities around the world, and attempt hostage rescues by armed means.

This new collective self defense initiative, strongly supported by the US government, amounts to a reinterpretation of Japan's postwar pacifist constitution which prohibits it from using force to resolve conflicts except in cases of self-defense. While the majority of Japanese citizens are reportedly against collective self defense, this initiative represents a very modest expansion of the role of the SDF in the direction of Japan becoming a "normal country".

Chinese reactions

Nevertheless, the Chinese government reacted with predictable hostility. The defense ministry said the laws "run counter to the trend of the times that upholds peace, development and cooperation". The foreign ministry urged Japan to "take seriously the security concerns of its Asian neighbors," and "act with discretion on military and security issues". The Chinese official news agency Xinhua said:

"Japan's military stance has potentially become more dangerous".

This is the same Chinese government that increased its military spending by 167% between 2005 and 2014. Its military spending of $216 billion in 2014 was almost five times that of Japan's $46 billion, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. It is also the same Chinese government held a giant military parade on Tiananmen Square on 3 September 2015, on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the "Victory of the Chinese People's War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression", to show off to the world its new military equipment, including the DF-21D, the so-called "carrier killer" anti-ship ballistic missile.

The Chinese government also made clear that it was not happy with Japanese Prime Minister's speech in mid-August on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.

According to Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Hua Chunying:

"Japan should have made an explicit statement on the nature of the war of militarism and aggression and its responsibility on the wars, made sincere apology to the people of victim countries, and made a clean break with the past of militarist aggression, rather than being evasive on this major issue of principle."

In short, China has a very big case of anti-Japanese sentiment. This is in sharp contrast to the reconciliation that Japan has managed to achieve with other wartime enemies like the US, Australia, the Philippines, and Singapore. US President Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Abe recently said:

"the relationship between our two countries over the last 70 years stands as a model of the power of reconciliation".

Happy days for China and Japan

Without in any way seeking to minimize the atrocities that the Japanese Imperial Army inflicted on China, nor the legalistic and sometimes ambiguous nature of Japanese apologies, it is important to understand the history of anti-Japanese sentiment in China, drawing on the work of historians like Ezra Vogel.

During the 1970s and 1980s, China and Japan actually had good relations. In 1972, Mao Zedong told Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka his apologies for Japan's wartime aggression were not necessary, and expressed gratitude for Japan's help in defeating Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang.

And following Deng Xiaoping's historic visit to Japan in 1978, relations between the two countries improved greatly. Japan played a key role in the take-off of the backward Chinese economy through financial assistance, corporate investments and technology transfer.

Rise of Japan-bashing

But things changed quickly after the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident, even though Japan was the first country to restore high level relations with China following the diplomatic rupture with advanced countries.

One lesson that the Chinese leadership drew from the Tiananmen Square incident was that the Communist Party needed to make greater efforts to promote nationalism to improve support for the Party. So under China's next leader, Jiang Zemin, China embarked on a massive campaign of patriotic education. Students and citizens were taught how the Communist Party was leading China's recovery from its "century of humiliation" (from the opium wars to the end of the civil war in 1949). And at the heart of this patriotic education was anti-Japanese propaganda, since Japan was the country that inflicted the most suffering on China.

But other factors weakened China's burgeoning friendship with Japan. With the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the USSR, China and Japan lost a common enemy which had helped unite them. And with its rapid development, China increasingly believed that it had less need for Japanese aid, investment and technology. More recently, with President Xi Jinping's assertive leadership, relations have flared up over the disputed Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu in Chinese).

The official anti-Japanese campaign has left deep scars, as academic Minxin Pei has argued:

"Chinese state media and history textbooks have fed the younger generation such a diet of distorted, jingoistic facts, outright lies, and nationalistic myths that it is easy to provoke anti-Western or anti-Japanese sentiments".

What hope for the future?

Is there any hope that China and Japan could bury the hatchet and have friendly relations?

It is very difficult to see a positive way out in the immediate future, even though it is ultimately in the interests of both countries to have good relations. The Chinese government has invested so much political energy in its anti-Japan propaganda that it would be difficult for it to back down. With its shaky economy and obvious political fragility, we are likely to see more, not less, Chinese nationalism. And China's anti-Japan propaganda has also emboldened Japan's right wing, which seeks to minimize Japanese wartime atrocities. It is also fostering "apology fatigue", especially among Japanese citizens born after the war.

Over the past year, there has been some softening of the rhetoric between the two countries. They realize the unfortunate economic costs of the "war of words", especially as Japanese investment in China has fallen dramatically over the past two years. Both leaders have met at international events. And there is now even talk of Shinzo Abe making an official visit to China.

But it will likely require generational change in both countries, and democracy and freedom of the press in China, for real reconciliation to ever take place between the two countries. As this will take a very long time, Asian neighbors and indeed the whole world must stay prepared for Northeast Asia remaining one of the world's political hotspots.


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