Stella Cai discusses how tensions between China and Japan are nowhere near the point of receding.


According to Xinhua; the official media in China, the PRC has decided to postpone celebrations of the 40th anniversary of the normalization of China-Japan relations. Such postponement is abnormal diplomatically; but given the background of mass anti-Japanese demonstrations taking place in dozens of Chinese cities, it is sensible to avoid flaming furiousness among nationalists again. Previous demonstrations have resulted in the ruin of numerous ‘Made in Japan’ cars and the shutting-down of shops that seemed to be related with Japan. But why do the Chinese lose temper in face of their old neighbour and important trade partner?

The fuse is territorial disputes over the Diaoyu Islands (???in Chinese; known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan). From 2010 onwards, fishermen from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Mainland China have been in the limelight in East Asia through sailing near the disputed islands and trying to claim sovereignty. In the wake of the fishermen’s action, willing or not, the Chinese surveillance ships march forward. Meanwhile, the Japanese government takes a hard line. The most dramatic scene happened when the governor of Tokyo announced that he wanted to buy the islands, prompting the central government to buy them instead for fear of the disputed areas slipping into the radical hands, according to the New York Times.

Adding to the tension, August and September are sensitive months in Sino-Japanese relations, as the former mark the surrender of Japan in World War II, and the latter includes the Mourning Day for the Mukden Incident (known as a signal of Japanese invasion into China in the 1930s). This combination of contingencies and histories leads us to dig deep into the roots of the ongoing quarrels between two giants in Asia.

Top in the root causes is their shared history; namely the Century of Humiliation. Though four decades have passed since China and Japan normalized their relations after WWII, problems left over by history, which can be traced back to 1894 when Japan invaded China under the Qing Dynasty, have never been properly solved. The Chinese criticize Japan for refusing to apologize sincerely for their sin in war while radicals in Japan deny those accusations and even try to revise history textbooks. The Chinese often take Germany as an example when they urge Japan to reflect on history, but it seems impossible for China and Japan to reach a consensus the same as the one reached by Germany and other European countries.

Apart from historical causes, the growing power of China and the emergence of radicals in two countries have also influenced the growth of demonstrations. Many have been curious about governments’ roles in this incident, the Chinese in particular. Obviously, similar to the anti-America demonstrations which broke out in 1999 after the US bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, the government doesn’t encourage but allows the populace to release their anger on the street. What is worthy of mentioning is that some individuals in Canton have made use of this opportunity to protest against the government, calling for liberty, equality and democracy. In this case, the authorities are utilizing the real anger of the masses to some extent, in order to take the initiative in diplomatic negotiations as well as to distract people’s attention from the myriad of social problems which remain unsolved. But they are more afraid of demonstrators shifting their focus towards the CCP, especially when it is facing a change of leadership later this year.

Looking to the future, as experience in the past has shown us, demonstrations of this kind will die down soon and the Chinese wouldn’t stop their preference to Japanese cars, appliances, etc., as long as they are still unable to refresh the manufacturing section of their economy. Nevertheless, with historical remains and emerging problems aside, mending bilateral relations between two countries and more importantly, two peoples, is no easy work. To put the problem into perspective, let us give a quote from Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao: ‘it took time, patience and wisdom to solve the problem.’

By the way, as for the damages caused in the demonstrations, some citizens are now arguing whether the Chinese government should pay those innocent car owners for their loss of beloved cars. After the tension, the drama is going to be interesting.

Stella Cai

Image credit- Wang Zhongdi