During the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese took pride in standing alone against the evils of imperialism, revisionism and anti-revolutionary behavior. Caught up in the moment, I fear they let it go to their heads. There was a song, very popular back then, that went something like this: “The wind is blowing from the east, the war drums are starting to beat, who shall cower should we meet? We do not fear the American imperialists, it is they who fear us!” As to who fears whom now, the current dispute over the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) is a useful litmus test.
There are three actors in this drama: The Japanese government, the Chinese government and the Chinese people.
After the initial incident on Sept. 7, when a Chinese fishing vessel collided with two Japanese patrol boats in disputed waters and Japan detained the captain, Beijing embarked on a string of publicity-grabbing protestations to intimidate a Japanese government regarded as pro-China. Japan initially refused to budge, insisting on proceeding in accordance with the law. Beijing responded with a series of gradual escalations, eventually encouraging the public to stage demonstrations.
On Sept. 15, the Chinese People’s Group told the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun it would hold an anti-Japanese demonstration on Sept. 18th with the blessing of the government, something Beijing itself did not deny. Despite concerns that the demonstration would descend into violence, the Japanese government remained firm. Strangely, the established group in China concerned with protecting the Diaoyutais said they had no plans to demonstrate.
When news of another protest emerged, spurred on by Beijing’s tacit approval of the previous one, the government became concerned things might get out of hand. Peking University students were advised not to take part, two human rights activists were arrested in Guangdong, proponents of China’s territorial claims on the Diaoyutais were put under surveillance and plainclothes police were stationed outside dissident writer Yu Jie’s (余杰) home.
With these intimidation tactics Beijing managed to contain the anti-Japanese demonstrations to a handful of cities. Talk of official approval was merely an attempt to intimidate Japan.
How did it get to this point? The answer lies, perhaps, in an extract, removed from the Internet not long after its was originally posted, by China’s foremost blogger, Han Han (韓寒). In the blog, Han said that protests about external issues held by people prevented from holding even peaceful demonstrations about domestic matters are nothing more than choreographed performances, and as such have very little meaning.
In other words, ordinary people could see through the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) machinations and refused to play along. In fact, more people usually turn out to protest against the government, suggesting that Beijing’s biggest problem is not the Japanese government, but the Chinese themselves.
Further escalation was the only alternative, meaning economic reprisals and the suspension of a number of diplomatic channels. Both of these mark a departure from previous policy. China has always maintained economic reprisals end up hurting both sides, something it seems to have disregarded this time. Beijing has also tried to keep “the government” and “the people” separate. The fact that it seems to have mixed the two up here shows it is beginning to panic.
Had the Japanese authorities not released the captain, as they did on Friday, the next step would have been to mobilize the military. It is unlikely, however, that China would have been prepared to go to war over this issue. Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) is intent on visiting the US soon, which he hopes will strengthen his authority; now is not the time for China to test the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the US and Japan.
The fact that the paper tiger was exposed for what it is overseas was irrelevant: The point was not to lose face at home.
I find it laughable that Beijing saw fit to get the Hong Kong media to create the impression that China was baring its fangs for a cowering Japan when Japan held out for so long.
Taiwan’s government also decided to get involved, sending 12 ships to protect its interests around the Diaoyutais on Sept. 13. President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) might not want to shy away from a fight, but to many Chinese, Han Han included, his timing suggests support for Beijing.
Paul Lin is a Taipei-based political commentator.
TRANSLATED BY PAUL COOPER
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