Four Japanese and a Chinese co-worker were enjoying a quiet dinner on Thursday when, out of nowhere, a group of people approached them and roughed them up, the kicks and punches accompanied by queries — some warped idea of due process, perhaps — as to whether they were indeed Japanese.
This “welcome” to China dispatched the Japanese and their Chinese friend, whose hand was apparently slashed by an assailant’s knife, to hospital. According to a Japanese consulate official, the attack may have been linked to the escalating tensions between China and Japan over the Diaoyutais (釣魚台). Given a series of similar attacks on all things Japanese across China in recent weeks, the official’s assessment was probably not too far off the mark.
What is worrying about this latest incident is that it didn’t occur in some backwater, where lack of exposure to foreigners would perhaps explain the ignorance and xenophobia that led to the attack. No, it was perpetrated at the heart of China’s commercial hub, in “modern,” glitzy Shanghai.
Now there are some people who would like to equate China’s nationalistic — and frequently violent — response to the sovereignty dispute with actions taken by Taiwan, which also claims the islets. In their view, the way President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration is handling the crisis is the result of some secret agreement between Taipei and Beijing to “gang up” against Japan. However, there is a serious flaw in that supposition: Where Chinese are turning to violence, Taiwanese will not.
Admittedly, some members of the Ma administration have made this a sovereignty issue, but we have it on good authority that the divisions at ministerial level and within the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) are very deep. Yes, some tour agencies have canceled trips. Yes, there have been protests, and yes, the Taipei City Government felt it had to distribute silly stickers reaffirming Taiwan’s claims over the islets during last week’s National Day celebrations.
However, in stark contrast with the hostile environment in China, Taiwanese remain friendly toward Japanese, and not a single act of violence or vandalism has been reported. So peaceful has the public response to the dispute been that the crowd that gathered at Taipei City Hall early in the morning on National Day could only respond with a mixture of awkward silence and uncertainty when organizers asked them who the Diaoyutais belong to. Fortunately for Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌), the crowd’s lack of enthusiasm for the issue was made clear before he climbed on stage, where, perhaps in a last-minute alteration to his script, he wisely decided not to repeat the question.
The difference in public reactions tells a far more important story. It highlights the fundamental differences that exist between Taiwanese and Chinese attitudes and how, in the end, the two communities are irreconcilably distinct. Taiwanese will not assail others because of their identity or some dispute between their governments over forlorn rocks in the middle of the sea.
In fact, they have shown tremendous respect, patience and courage since tourism by Chinese, whose government continues to threaten Taiwan with a military attack, became a fact of life.
As Tung Chen-yuan (童振源) and Hung Yao-nan (洪耀南) wrote in a brilliant piece in this newspaper recently, Taiwanese national identity and values are stronger today than ever before, amid (or some would say despite) efforts by the Ma administration to increase ties across the Taiwan Strait. Yes, they will support social and economic exchanges with China, but never at the price of sacrificing who they are. Their ability to transcend politics, where their Chinese counterparts turn to violence (including against their own) sends a clear signal that Taiwanese are not Chinese, and that they know it.