By far the most significant development in Chinese politics in recent weeks has been the surge in anti-Japanese nationalist fervour. Recently visiting a city in northern Hunan province I was witness to the occasional irrational display of nationalist feeling that have broken out across the country. While the protests were not as violent as those seen in larger cities such as Beijing, the nationalist movement I witnessed was visible and largely organic with no signs that it had been organised by local authorities.
At the heart of the current upsurge in anti-Japanese sentiment is a dispute over the sovereignty of a small group of uninhabited islands north of Taiwan known as Diaoyu in Chinese and Senkaku in Japanese. While this is not the only territorial dispute in which China is currently embroiled (nor the most valuable claim) it is by far the most incendiary. China has a complicated relationship with Japan. While significant economic links exist between the two nations (Japan’s investment accounts for more than 20% of foreign investment in China) memories of past atrocities, exacerbated by education and popular media, have contributed to a popular distrust of Japan within China. A perception exists that Japan has never fully atoned for war crimes in China, along with the fear that imperialist ambitions still lurk beneath the surface. When the Japanese government moved to acquire the islands from their private owners public opinion in China was outraged.
From my vantage point nationalist mood was palpable. The crisis became a popular topic for conversation with the various elements of the dispute considered. The conclusion was always that Japan was to blame. Signs and stickers, professionally made, appeared on the rear windows of cars, most carrying the motif of a Japanese flag with a black cross through it. With reports across China indicating that drivers of Japanese cars had become targets, many owners of Toyotas, Hondas and Mitsubishi models covered up indications of the origin of the vehicle. Those who didn’t tried to protect themselves in other ways including signs which read “My car may be Japanese, but my heart is Chinese”. Local businesses followed suit displaying flags and banners, the rhetoric of which ranged from expressions of patriotism to calls for physical retaliation against Japan. Many of the signs carrying defaced Japanese flags were displayed in stores. When I questioned them about where they obtained such signs, storekeepers responded that strangers had given them the signs asking them to display them. Eventually 70% of businesses in the city displayed some sort physical support towards nationalist sentiment.
Attacks on Japanese actions quickly evolved to encompass criticisms of the Chinese government. The central government was attacked for not doing enough to stand up to perceived Japanese aggression. One person, commenting on the disappearance of President in waiting Xi Jinping, told me that in a time of crisis it was irresponsible for figures in the central government to be less than visible. These sentiments rose to the surface when a group of retired soldiers of all ranks and ages rallied in one of the major squares in the city. Calling for stronger action on Japan they unfurled a banner reading: “If you, the government do not make any moves, we will”. That evening reports circulated on Chinese social media calling on city residents to march to the same square in protest against Japan.
It is clear that in some cases regime authorities played an active role in organising anti-Japanese demonstrations,although in the case I witnessed official permission to protest would have been needed. The nervousness of the government was brought home to me that morning. My accommodation overlooked a school yard which was full of police vehicles. Officers lined up in two columns and marched out to the street. Moving down to the square was difficult; traffic was at a standstill. The police presence was significant with riot police assembled across the road. Reports of the size of the protest varied but it probably ranged from 10 to 30,000 people. From a city of 600,000 people this figure was substantial. Apart from drivers of Japanese cars being berated, the march was peaceful with protestors carrying flags and banners, singing songswhile cars drove along side.
Days later with more protests planned to commemorate the anniversary of the Japanese annexation of Manchuria, party members and local civil servants told me that they were prohibited from participating in anti-Japanese activities. This was a clear sign that the regime was concerned by the effect of organised anti-Japanese sentiment: the more the people called for action against Japan the less flexibility the government would have to deal with the crisis. The protests the next day were substantial, part of protests across the nation. There was a tangibly different sensibility with advertising handbills handed out as protestors marched by. The government action seemed to have had an effect, the visceral rhetoric died away.
Sino-Japanese relations may prove to be one of the great fault lines of the twenty-first century. The sentiments of many Chinese about Japan are deeply distrustful. The government may find it increasingly difficult to contain popular nationalism. The peaceful resolution of conflicts between Japan and China is in the world’s interest. Nationalism can be an ugly thing and a significant threat to the peace and stability of the region.