Anti-Japanese Protests in China
The current anti-Japanese protests that have engulfed China over the past week aren’t unprecedented, but they do appear to be the most serious in the country since the early 1970s. The proximate cause for these protests was the decision of the Japanese government to purchase what it calls the Senkaku Islands, a small archipelago in the South China Sea that both China and Taiwan claim. The underlying causes are of course far more important and will determine how Sino-Japanese relations evolve in the coming years and decades.
What are these underlying causes? First, the Chinese still hold a major historical grievance over Japan’s brutal occupation of their country, a historical experience seared into the collective memory of the country. The degree to which Japan remains distrusted in East Asia often escapes Westerners, in part because our education focuses so much on Nazi Germany’s crimes in Europe. And unlike Germany, Japan has not satisfactorily apologized or atoned for its imperial-era misdeeds.
Secondly, China has in recent years claimed sovereignty over the entire South China Sea, claims it rather fatuously insists are based in long-standing historical record. The diplomacy surrounding maritime law in the Pacific is complicated (to say the least), but it’s safe to assume that countries like Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines also have significant interests in the sea and are not prepared to accede to China’s wishes without a fight. The Chinese believe that competing claims to their rightful territory do the bidding of the United States, whom China feels is trying to contain its rise.
Thirdly, the Communist Party derives much of its present legitimacy from nationalism. Many Chinese dislike the Party and chafe at its corruption and repression, but stand lock-step behind their leaders on territorial questions regarding Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan, and the South China Sea. The Party knows this, and sees anti-Japan protests as a useful deflection of populist rage away from itself.
Finally, these protests represent a desire for the Chinese people to re-engage with political life, something that the Party has denied them over the past few decades. Following the decade-long experience of the Cultural Revolution, an era in which all aspects of Chinese life were politicized, the Party changed course and essentially stripped politics from society in order to promote economic development. These protests against Japan- like protests against the United States following the accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999- provide the Chinese public with a sense of solidarity and community that had been absent in the country for many years. These protests allow ordinary Chinese people to strive for something beyond their own material welfare.
Forgive me if this post delves too much into psychological babble, but I do think that these types of protests are symptomatic of authoritarian-led countries. This doesn’t mean that the world shouldn’t take China’s claims to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands seriously- far from it. But in assessing the rage of ordinary Chinese over a semi-obscure foreign policy issue, psychological explanations do hold merit.