The standoff in the East China Sea between Japan and the People’s Republic may seem inconsequential to South Africans mired in their own unrest, but given Washington’s close ties to Tokyo, it has serious implications for geopolitics as we know it. KEVIN BLOOM reports from a bristling Guangzhou.
Theoretically, in a country of 1.3 billion people, it shouldn’t be difficult to miss news of a protest in the capital, especially if you’ve been travelling and working in provinces over 2,000 kilometres to the south. On myriad levels, the major cities of Guangdong and Fujian are uninterested in the goings-on in Beijing—comparatively, it would be like assuming that ordinary people in Florida or Texas are as obsessed by the minutiae of diplomatic life as the government wonks in DC.
So the likelihood of finding yourself in Guangzhou, and being oblivious to a Beijing-based spat concerning a tiny group of islands in the East China Sea, is on the face of it quite high. Except that in this case we’ve found ourselves as aware of the escalating tensions involving the Diaoyou island chain—known to the Japanese as Senkaku—as we are of the stories we’re actually in China to cover (all of which fall into the broad category of China-Africa relations, for a forthcoming co-authored book on the subject).
The reasons for the above are manifold. Firstly, our fixer and interpreter while we were in Fujian, a smart university graduate who’s asked to go unnamed, kept talking about the matter. “The Chinese government will do nothing,” he said. “But we should go to war.”
It was this statement—or in fact this series of statements made over several days—that touched on the deeper reasons why the standoff between China and Japan is being noted and commented on, by Chinese nationals from all generations, across the length and breadth of the country.
The historical roots can be traced to the middle of the nineteenth century, when Japan, which had been heavily influenced over the preceding centuries by Chinese culture and civilisation, was forced by the West to open itself to trade and to modernise. As a newcomer to the world of global commerce, Japan quickly deemed itself superior to its big cousin, viewing China as antiquated and weak due to the Opium Wars and various Anglo-French plundering expeditions.
Then came the two Sino-Japanese Wars, the second of which, lasting from 1937 until 1945, saw the infamous Nanjing Massacre, also known as the Rape of Nanking. During a six-week period beginning in mid-December 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army murdered, raped and looted the citizens of the former Chinese capital on a scale that even the Nazis would be hard-pressed to match when they were let loose on Europe a few years later.
Although official records confirmed the death toll at Nanjing at between 250,000 and 300,000, various Japanese nationalists have continued to claim over the decades that the figure has either been widely exaggerated or fabricated for the purposes of propaganda. As recently as February of this year, the governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, said he believed the massacre never happened—it would have been impossible, he reportedly said, to kill so many people in such a short timeframe.
As for outsiders to the conflict, referring to the events in Nanjing as a “massacre” is still commonly interpreted as Japan-bashing. Nanjing is a key foundation stone in the national identities of both China and Japan, and 75 years on it remains a tinderbox that could quite easily flare into a third Sino-Japanese war.
Into this equation comes a resurgent China, a rising superpower with a brand-new “go out” foreign policy and a navy that every year makes its presence more keenly felt in its own territorial waters and beyond. Two years ago, that navy restrained itself after a Chinese fishing captain, Zhan Qixiong, rammed two Japanese vessels off the Diaoyu Islands, and was taken into custody by Japanese authorities.
Noted the New York Times of the incident: “Wen Jiabao, the Chinese prime minister, refused to meet with his Japanese counterpart, Naoto Kan, and threatened Japan with ‘further action’ if it did not unconditionally release the fishing boat's captain. The Chinese government also blocked exports to Japan of a crucial category of minerals used in products like hybrid cars, wind turbines and guided missiles. It even detained four Japanese…
“The dispute may strengthen the military alliance between the United States and Japan, as did an incident in April 2010 when a Chinese helicopter buzzed a Japanese destroyer. Such confrontations tend to remind Japanese officials, who have suggested that they need to refocus their foreign policy on China instead of America, that they rely on the United States to balance an unpredictable China, analysts say.”
And analysts are saying the same thing again, after a standoff in the waters of the East China Sea rose to alarming levels over the last few days. Navy vessels from the two countries had radioed each other with warnings to leave the region off the Diaoyu Islands, which under the name Senkaku are currently controlled by Japan. The Chinese ambassador in Tokyo was summoned to hear an official Japanese complaint, while on the weekend Chinese nationalists demonstrated in the streets of Beijing.
As of early afternoon in Guangzhou on Sunday, news has been emerging that yesterday the protests spread to more than two-dozen cities across China. This morning, outside the Japanese embassy in the capital, security personnel outnumbered the demonstrators, who were allowed to file past in groups of no more than a hundred. Many demonstrators threw tomatoes and eggs at the embassy, while chanting words that assert Chinese ownership of the islands. Some carried portraits of Mao Zedong, and one man, according to the Washington Post, draped the Japanese flag over his dog.
But it’s only through foreign news organisations like the Washington Post that such things are known right now in the People’s Republic. At a month away from a long-awaited and immensely important leadership changeover, the most immediate objective of the Communist Party politburo is stability, and anything involving Japan—even if it does have the added benefit of stoking nationalist sentiment—has the ability to spill over into something unmanageable.
For that reason, local users of the Twitter-like Chinese social media phenomenon Weibo couldn’t search for “anti-Japan protests” on Sunday. Still, the Los Angeles Times would’ve told you that in Guangzhou, on 16 September, demonstrators stormed into the first two floors of a complex that houses the Japanese consulate, breaking windows in a hotel and smashing a vehicle.
During one of the interviews we conducted on Sunday, on the topic of China-Africa relations, we asked our subject, a 22-year-old woman from Hunan Province, what she made of the issue. She told us that she had taken Japanese as a second language at high school, and that she never wanted to speak it again. DM
Photo: Protesters clash with policemen as they tried to break into a hotel which leads to the Japanese consulate in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, September 16, 2012. Chinese protesters took to city streets for a second day on Sunday to denounce Japan in a row over disputed islands, prompting the Japanese prime minister to call on Beijing to ensure protection of his country's people and property. REUTERS/Stringer