Finding an Alternative Explanation for Anti-Japanese Protests

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Finding an Alternative Explanation for Anti-Japanese Protests

 by Manuel L. Quezon III

Alternative means are what I’ve had to find, when it comes to figuring out the recent epidemic of popular protests taking place in China. The protests are aimed against Japan, apparently provoked by yet another incident of Japanese textbooks downplaying the severity of their army’s behavior during World War II. They were further fueled by renewed discussions concerning Japan’s desire to be admitted as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. they have resulted in what the New York Times describes as “raucous” protests in cities such as Shenyang and the industrial and commercial powerhouse city of Shenzhen, as well as “a wave of vandalism” in Shanghai.

For eyewitness accounts that go beyond the pieces published in the papers, I’ve increasingly turned to blogs. While most bloggers with eyewitness accounts of protests are written by foreigners (expats in China proficient in English and I presume, less worried of official Chinese reactions to what they write), they do provide nuances and details absent in standard media accounts.

A Shanghai blogger, Andres Gently, has an extremely fascinating and provocative piece on these anti-Japanese demonstrations (he was an eyewitness to the one in Shanghai). He considers the protests not only the result of a determined Japanophobia on the part of the Chinese Communist Party (implied in most media coverage) or and the expression of government fears of Japan as a rival on the UN Security Council (the standard geopolitical explanation), but also a reflection of the utter political repression in China, which prevents any expression of sentiment, much less discussion, on Chinese politics.

Gently’s thoughts (well worth a visit on the worldwide web) reminds me of a recent discussion I had with two people: one was a recent visitor to that city, the other, a Beijing resident touring South East Asia. The recent visitor noticed that all reference to the protests was censored -including news items on CNN. Hotel TV screens would go black for the duration of any news item on the protests. The Beijing resident had it on the most credible authority, that the Chinese government sent strict, and specific, instructions forbidding any coverage and commentary on the protests.

This goes against the conventional wisdom that nothing happens in China without the government’s permission, and that there is a fundamentally geopolitical reason behind the protests being “permitted” (more likely, organized and encouraged) to take place. But if the Chinese government isn’t organizing the rallies, and the primary motivation for the rallies aren’t official Chinese opposition to a Security Council seat for Japan, what’s the cause of the protests? According to the Beijing resident, it’s a combination of factors. First, there is a widespread antipathy to Japan, due to handed down memories of the war and indoctrination in schools concerning Japanese atrocities. Any news of textbook whitewashing, and further news of renewed Japanese diplomatic ambitions, is sure to provoke anger. However, another reason is that since Japan is, in a sense, a legitimate target of protest, and since there are very few avenues for protest in China, then marching against Japan is a means for expressing dislike for the current situation — including the government.

The Beijing resident explained this by pointing out that there is a widely held opinion among younger Chinese that their government is too eager, and unhealthily concerned, with keeping relations with Japan smooth, for the purpose of encouraging investments. Add to this the reality that criticism, at least in the media in China (which, unless foreign-owned, is state-controlled), is permissible only when dealing with the relatively distant past, or when it is concerned with goings-on in distant lands. Disgust over the perception that their government is too concerned with money-grubbing, and the realization that expressing this disgust is only possible when linked to the past and a country who’s historical record is officially condemned, means mounting protests against Japan offers a near-perfect avenue for engaging in what has been impossible since 1989: Marching in the streets.

This would explain why the Chinese government can’t crack down on protests, but is also unwilling to fully support them. Officials simply can’t figure out the real motivation for the protests, and they don’t want to risk appearing too obliging to the Japanese. On the other hand, they can’t appear too paranoid, as it would entail the government’s losing face, because it would have to admit that at least a few viewed the protests as a pretext for mobilizing against the state, as well as a crackdown proving the state was not fully in control of a situation everyone’s assumed has been contained since the Tiananmen Square “incident” (known to the rest of the world as a massacre).

Shanghai blogger Dan Washburn provides a marvelous translation of one email calling for protests, including this particular piece of advice: “The police are public servants, they are just as patriotic as us, but they have their duties — to ensure security during the protest. Therefore, please cooperate with them, especially in front of the Japanese consulate. If a policeman looks at you, don’t throw anything, if not, throw an egg or a tomato. If you are spotted throwing stuff at the consulate, smile at the policeman.”

Perhaps, in gingerly approaching the crossroads to democracy, the old train track warning — Stop, Look, Listen — lacks one modern addition: Smile, you’re protesting in China!

Today, the smiles of protesters able to organize despite their government’s unease, must be positively delicious. There aren’t any smiles on the faces of Chinese officials, their Japanese counterparts, or stockbrokers the world over, though.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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