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Hearing China’s take on Senkakus

by Mark Schreiber

The most recent territorial dispute over the Senkaku (Japanese name)/Diaoyutai (Chinese name) Islands, located southwest of Okinawa (or north of Taiwan if you prefer), was triggered on Sept. 7 when a Chinese trawler attempted to ram two Japanese Coast Guard vessels. The blurry details of the collision were finally made public last week in a video released to the Diet.

Downplaying the incident, Spa! (Oct. 19) ran an article reporting that most Chinese people were comparatively subdued over the Senkaku/Diaoyutai issue, and noting that Japanese restaurant franchises in Chinese cities were doing “business as usual.”

But that Spa! issue went on sale four days before Oct. 16, the day that protests flared up in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, and four other cities. In Chengdu, store windows and display cases at a branch of the Ito Yokado supermarket were smashed by demonstrators campaigning for a boycott of Japanese goods, and according to other media reports, cars with Japanese nameplates were damaged.

Sunday Mainichi (Nov. 7) reflected one widely voiced viewpoint in the Japanese media that the demonstrators were “letting off steam” because they were forbidden from airing grievances over domestic concerns — such as university graduates’ difficulties in finding jobs and the country’s growing income disparity — and that Japan was merely being used as a handy scapegoat. A Chinese commentator named Shi Ping echoed similar views in Friday (Nov. 5).

China-watcher Masaru Soma also pointed out the timing of the demonstrations, which occurred on the weekend just before the Central Committee of the Communist Party convened in Beijing on Oct. 18. Writing in Shukan Post (Nov. 7), Soma suggested the demonstrations may have been a part of behind-the-scenes moves by supporters of Vice Premier Xi Jinping to gain influence in his push to succeed paramount leader Hu Jintao.

Reportage in the Chinese media about the Senkaku/Diaoyutai dispute and subsequent demonstrations has been largely downplayed in foreign media, no doubt due to the general view that China’s media merely parrots the official party line.

But Chinese correspondents posted in Japan have been issuing a regular stream of coverage, and what they have been writing is quite interesting — particularly, a tabloid named Huanqiu Shibao (Global Times), which is published by the Central Committee organ Renmin Ribao (People’s Daily).

On Sept. 21, under the headline “Finding the Achilles’ heel of Japan,” Global Times editorialized, “It should be apparent by now that China will be forced to endure long-term conflicts with Japan, and emphasizing only friendly relations is not prudent. . . . China needs to be certain of Japan’s soft spots for clearly targeted reactions.”

“The pain has to be piercing,” the piece went on. “Japanese politicians need to understand the consequences — votes will be lost, and Japanese companies have to be aware of the loss of business involved. Japanese citizens will feel the burden due to the downturn in the economy. China’s domestic law, business regulations and consumers can all be maneuvered.”

The “Achilles’ heel” on which the Chinese media is focusing appears to be Japan’s ultranationalist groups. China has long raised objections over the visits by parliamentarians and Cabinet members to Yasukuni Shrine, but Chinese readers are likely to form the impression that Japan’s uyoku dantai (rightwing groups) are the prime cause of the current discord between the two nations.

For instance, on Oct. 18, Global Times ran a front-page story titled “Japan needs to halt fanatic nationalistic sentiment.” The piece went on to label the Japanese government’s gravitating to political expedients [sic] as “succumbing to the pressure of extremists.”

Another newspaper, Cankao Xiaoxi (Reference News, Oct. 8), published by the Xinhua news agency, ran a translation of “A black sun rises in a declining Japan” by Mark MacKinnon, the Beijing bureau chief of Toronto-based Globe and Mail. The article, originally published in Canada on Oct. 5, examined what MacKinnon viewed as a “tide of rising nationalism” sweeping Japan.

Meanwhile, the Oct. 18 cover story in Renwu Zhoukan, a nationally circulated weekly magazine that somewhat resembles U.S. gossip magazine People, carried a cover story titled “The Shintaro Ishihara you don’t know,” a 14-page article interviewing and profiling Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, who is known for his nationalistic sentiments and who frequently ruffles China’s feathers through statements in the media.

“Some Chinese, even more educated and sophisticated Chinese, view the possibility of resurgent Japanese nationalism as a legitimate threat,” an American working in Shanghai told The Japan Times. “In his memoirs, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger touched on how he was able to exploit Chinese fears of resurgent Japanese militarism during negotiations in the early 1970s.

“As a case in point, the Chinese media was all over a recent announcement (reported by Xinhua on Oct. 21) that Japan will increase its submarine fleet by the current 16 to 22 vessels,” the executive pointed out.

The pressing question now is whether, and to what extent, Japan will reassess its trade and investments in China. In a 42-page cover story titled “China Risk,” Shukan Diamond (Oct. 30) advises Japanese businesses to contribute to Chinese society by setting down roots in the local community. But it acknowledges that good corporate citizenship might not be enough: Reforms and marketing open measures aside, the intrinsic nature of China’s political dialectic means “anything can happen at any time.”