As anti-Japanese protests escalate on Chinese streets and in state-regulated cyberspace, Western media is posing questions about how much of a role Beijing has played.
The spark that set this particular blaze alight is a long-standing dispute over the sovereignty of the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台), a set of unpopulated islets in the East China Sea that Taiwan, China and Japan all claim. In Japan, they are known as the Senkaku Islands.
Over the years, it has become an annual ritual of sorts for all sides to reassert their claims. What triggered all the tumult this year was a speech this spring made during a visit to Washington by Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, in which he announced an intent on the part of Tokyo’s municipal government to buy three of the islands from their private owner. This immediately inflamed Chinese citizens online and off, setting off a wave of anti-Japanese protests across the country. Tensions further escalated when Japanese donors stepped forward to back Ishihara, and then again in July, when Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda declared that it would be the central government who would purchase the islands, “nationalizing” the contested territory.
The moves have unleashed an astonishing array of protests in both China and Taiwan, a good many of which — at least in China — have turned violent.
So what is so special about these uninhabited rocks in the sea? Beyond the patriotic issue of sovereignty and all the history that goes along with that, the waters adjacent to the islands are thought to contain significant oil reserves and other energy and mineral deposits.
In addition to the energy and resources issue, sovereignty over the islands is seen by all sides as vital to their national security. Whichever country ends up owning these islands will have expanded its territorial frontier deeper into the East China Sea, and hence provided itself with a significant buffer, leaving the other contesting parties in a far less favorable position.
The Chinese government’s tacit approval of escalating anti-Japanese sentiment, which has triggered this most recent spate of demonstrations on the street and in cyberspace, may seem out of place in a country with such a consistent record of putting down almost all large organized demonstrations, both online and off.
Media reports in the West and Asia suggest that Beijing is directly behind the mobilization of citizens rallying on the street. Witnesses say that demonstrators are being provided meals and refreshments after rallies, but a direct line to who is providing the amenities has yet to be proven. There is also speculation that Beijing’s apparent tacit consent is tied to the upcoming transfer of power to a younger generation of leaders. The demonstrations are regarded as a sort of pressure valve, giving the civilian population a chance to blow off steam over a wide variety of issues and complaints that have built up under the current leadership.
Of course, those sentiments have little or nothing to do with Japan. However, the island controversy came along at a very convenient time for Beijing. Just as the power shift is about to take place and a controversial series of trials surrounding the fall of the Chinese Communist Party’s one-time rising star Bo Xilai (薄熙來) are being held, the controversy is a handy way to divert public attention from things the party is embarrassed about. By allowing the masses to flood the streets and get whatever latent grumbling that has built up out of its collective system, the hope is that social pressure will be lessened and the country’s freshly-minted leaders will have an easier start.
Whether this will work or not is a matter of speculation, and it may exacerbate greater challenges confronting not only China, but East Asia and the wider world.
One must note that anti-Japanese sentiment is a phenomenon deeply rooted in history and Chinese society. In school, on TV and the Internet, young Chinese learn early on about the bullying and atrocities Japan subjected China to before and during World War II.
In fact, as recent events illustrate, this anti-Japanese indoctrination is so effective that the government finds it nearly impossible to control.
This has put Beijing in a bind: If the government puts down the ongoing outbreak of patriotic protest, it will bring the very anti-government sentiment it has been trying to divert to the surface. This is a sign that when it comes to being able to channel the nationalism of its citizens, China is in fact a very weak regime.
This can be seen in the ham-handed actions Beijing takes to persuade its population and the world that it nevertheless maintains its grip. This is done by undertaking apparently contradictory actions, from issuing permits for some protests to arresting lawbreakers during other sometimes-violent demonstrations. The same contradictions can be seen in cyberspace, where nationalist posts are often permitted to show the government’s tolerance of popular expression, while at others, similar posts and graphic elements are removed.
Particularly when it comes to situations in which nationalist sentiment is aroused, Beijing is increasingly held hostage to public opinion. This is a direct result of the government’s desire to avoid challenges to its nationalist credentials and its loathing about confronting its burgeoning number of ardent nationalists.
This tendency undermines China’s image and its national interests. The world regards China as a rising power and expects it to behave in a mature and responsible fashion. Failing to do so not only tarnishes China’s global image, it jeopardizes peace and security in East Asia.
Yu-Wen Chen is a lecturer in the Department of Government at University College Cork, Ireland.
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