Anti-Japanese Protests in China

Posted on September 18th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 4 comments

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.

4 Responses to “Anti-Japanese Protests in China”

  1. Anthony says:


    Great overview on the situation. I would put more emphasis on the institutionalized hatred of Japan is like here in China. Like a curriculum. That is important for non chinese to understand. Taught hatred.

    Susan Shirk’s China Fragile Superpower has a whole chapter dedicated to misplaced nationalist rage including past offenses against Japan. Great analysis.

    Here on the ground though seeing bigotry on this level up close and personal can’t be summed up in words. Very disappointing and disheartening. A lot of Chinese friends my age though do say they think it is all BS and that the CCP sucks.

    Now Japan, but who is next. I know BMW and Buick are making more money now that people are afraid to purchase Japanese products.

  2. Chris Waugh says:

    Regarding territorial claims, I think it throws both more light and more fog on the issue if we recognise that “Taiwan”‘s territorial claims are actually the Republic of China’s territorial claims. Ma Yingjeou (or however 马英九 romanises his name) is president of the RoC, after all. The RoC makes all the same territorial claims as the PRC, perhaps more – that is how “Taiwan” (actually the RoC) claims Diaoyu and all the same islands in the South China Sea as the PRC. Light, because there’s no cross-straits conflict over ownership of Diaoyu, the Spratlys, the Paracels, etc, it’s both sides of the strait together versus the Rest. Fog because this has me wondering how Taipei will respond should tensions further escalate. Considering it’s a traditionally pro-reunification KMT government in power, would they cooperate with the Mainland if things got hot? For example by providing air cover (given Taiwan’s location much closer to Diaoyu) for a Mainland naval force? After all, the islands in dispute are just as much Taipei’s as Beijing’s. That could make it rather messy, two American allies on opposite sides of a rather warmish and potentially heating dispute. Idle speculation, I know….

    Also, I’m pretty sure none of these claims were made “in recent years”. China fought a small naval battle against South Vietnam over some of the disputed islands in the early ’70s. The question of sovereignty dates back to the imperial period, with France having occupied the islands and claimed them as part of Indochina despite China’s impotent objections. I believe, but need to check, something similar applies to Diaoyu, perhaps going back to the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki that ceded Taiwan? (in too much of a hurry to do any fact checking right now).

    I saw a claim in the newspaper a couple of days ago that Ryukyu has never been part of Japan and that it’s occupation and annexation by Japan has always been illegal. This, I believe, was made to further weaken Japan’s claim to Diaoyu, Ryukyu apparently being the closest other Japanese territory.

    As for the psychological aspect, don’t forget all the pent up frustration and rage at environmental protection, food safety scandals, rampant official corruption and the antics of the 富二代 and 官二代, product quality scandals, inflation (esp. food and house prices) without meaningful wage rises, the huge expense of raising kids (trust me! her shoes cost as much as mine!), and the general pressure of life in this country right now, all issues for which there is far less permitted room for venting, let alone discussion. Japan is a comparatively safe topic to allow people a bit more room to let off steam. Of course, there is a limit, and when it is reached the Party will tighten up the safety valves again and get everybody back to work and school.

    Don’t forget the politics. Impending leadership change, BXL scandal and it’s repercussions. Here we have a handy little distraction.

    Anthony, fair points, but I think far too many people ignore the role families play in teaching hatred – something that happens worldwide. Chinese people don’t need the CCP to tell them to hate Japan when their parents and grandparents have been passing the stories down to them one generation to another. The curriculum helps, as do the media with books, films and TV series or the slant put on news about Japan, but it begins in the cradle.

    It’s also not as simple as hate. Interpersonal relations between individual Japanese and Chinese are often very positive, and many Chinese are married to Japanese. Many aspects of Japanese culture are very popular in China – Sola Aoi [ahem], anime (does Doraemon count? That’s still on the TV even now)… People are for the time being worried about buying Japanese goods, but chances are this will all blow over and life will go back to normal, Japanese restaurants will reopen and be frequented by Chinese people. Even now people continue to drive Japanese cars without any overblown fear – yes, bad things happen to a few unlucky ones, but most get from A to B just fine.

    Right, fresh air and cold brews are currently of a higher priority than fact checking my claims above. Back soon.

  3. Chris Waugh says:

    And, of course, Wang Lijun’s been cropping up in the media again, on trial now, it seems.

  4. Phil says:

    Hey Matt,

    Interesting take on the protest, I actually heard a similar argument from my current Japanese colleagues at lunch along with another reason: namely that the area around the islands have been recently been found to be rich in natural resources, which have made them a much more prized asset than in the past. I think those two reasons combined make them an easy target for the protests..

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