Civil disorder is rare in Communist China because the government invariably quells it under a jackboot of force. But for three weeks, Chinese authorities have allowed anti-Japanese protests to rock major cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, Shenyang and Hong Kong. Protesters have taken to the streets to throw rocks, bottles and paint at the Japanese embassy in Beijing and the consulate in Shanghai. Two Japanese students in Shanghai were reportedly beaten while Japanese officials demanded Beijing protect Japanese diplomats, citizens and businesses. Over the weekend, 20,000 people in Shanghai turned out to smash Japanese cars and restaurant windows. Billboards advertising Japanese products have been defaced. The protests are the longest-running in China since Tiananmen, and that’s no accident.
China has always shown a willingness to risk East Asian security for its power-political moves. But now, as the protests show, apparently China is also willing to risk its own economic prosperity to score points against Japan.
The proximate reason for the violence is anger over a revanchist textbook that denies Japanese atrocities in World War II. The secondary ones are displeasure over the Japanese bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council and a simmering dispute over gas drilling in disputed territories. But these aren’t anything new. Japan has been downplaying its wartime atrocities for decades. Talk of expanding the Security Council is ongoing, and the territorial disputes are old. What’s new is that Communist China is testing nationalistic fervor as a geopolitical tool, and the result is the last three weeks’ chaos.
“Issues of Chinese nationalism have become the state-sponsored, approved way for people to become involved in the affairs of the nation,” one Chinese analyst told Radio Free Asia, and he’s right on that account. The protesters are white-collar workers, not proletarian revolutionaries, and they are hitting the streets with Beijing’s approval. In the view of China’s rulers they are tools in the effort to deflect demands for political inclusion. They have been selectively permitted to protest because the government sees advantages in letting them.
What has this tactic yielded? A dangerous decline in relations with Japan and serious potential harm to the region’s economies. Beijing can’t help but notice the economic havoc the protests are wreaking. The Nikkei has plunged. The drop was 3.8 percent yesterday alone, the largest single-day decline in more than 11 months. The hardest-hit industries were those most closely tied to China, including shipbuilding, steel manufacturing and travel. Meanwhile, All Nippon Airways reported mass flight cancellations to China. It’s not hard to understand that Japanese tourists and businessmen will be less likely to enter China if angry mobs await them.
What of the Chinese grievances? Clearly the outrage over atrocity-denying textbooks is warranted, but government-sponsored mob violence is a poor response from a pariah nation, much less a U.N. Security Council member like China. To the extent that Japan tries to excuse its historical wrongs, it deserves condemnation, not attacks on its facilities and citizens.
The other complaints are mostly specious. As the governing body of the community of nations, the U.N. Security Council needs to be more representative, and Japan is about as good a candidate as any for addition. Current arrangements do not reflect economic and geopolitical realities. That’s why the permanent members are in varying degrees of agreement that the council should be expanded — something which even China agrees with, in theory if not in practice. And the gas-drilling disputes are for diplomatic negotiation, not brickbats.
If anti-Japanese protests are Communist China’s new means of channeling the Chinese populace’s political energy, the results can only be negative for everyone. Reports late on Sunday that Chinese authorities were reigning in protesters in the lead-up to Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura’s visit to Beijing come as too little, too late. No one should applaud China for ensuring a visiting dignitary’s safety — that’s the least that diplomatic relations require.
If China wants to avoid confrontation with world powers, including the United States — to say nothing of China’s desire to increase its standing in the world — it will need to avoid displays like the anti-Japanese riots of the past three weeks. No nation can treat its neighbors this way and expect to escape serious diplomatic and economic consequences.