HONG KONG – The territorial dispute between China and Japan over a group of islands in the East China Sea continues to worsen, with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warning Beijing not to try to change the status quo in which the uninhabited isles are under Japanese administration and the Chinese responding that Clinton’s words would embolden rightwing forces in Japan and lead to further tension.
That’s an interesting charge. There is general agreement that nationalism is on the rise in Japan; witness the election of Shinzo Abe, a rightwing politician, last month. Who is responsible for pushing Japan to the right?
To a degree, both the Chinese and Japanese governments are responding to growing nationalism. However, there is little doubt that rising nationalistic sentiments on both sides are being driven by China.
Ezra Vogel, the Harvard scholar on both Japan and China, has provided his analysis, which is based on decades of research. He spoke recently at a conference in Hong Kong known as the third Sino-U.S. Colloquium, which involved former officials from the United States, China and Japan, many from the military.
The American scholar was in Beijing for the launch of the Chinese edition of his book “Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China,” a biography of the Chinese leader.
Deng, he said, knew it was in China’s interests to have good relations with all countries, including the U.S. and the Soviet Union as well as its neighbors, Japan and the countries of Southeast Asia. In fact, the paramount leader wanted a strong cultural basis for cooperation with Japan and imported Japanese movies and TV programs and promoted youth exchanges.
Vogel recalled that, through the 1980s, the Chinese people’s attitude toward Japan was not hostile.
Things started to change, however, after the Tiananmen Square uprising of 1989, which culminated in a military crackdown. This represented an existential threat to the Communist Party, which realized that faith in Marxism had evaporated in the wake of the party’s embrace of market principles.
The abandonment of world revolution and class struggle by Deng after the death of Mao Zedong led many to lose faith in Marxism. In searching for another rationale for the party’s monopoly on power, the party decided on the use of nationalism, with such sentiments to be inculcated through patriotic education.
This is clearly documented. On June 9, 1989 — five days after tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square — Deng addressed officers in command of the troops enforcing martial law in Beijing.
He told them: “During the last 10 years our biggest mistake was made in the field of education, primarily in ideological and political education — not just of students but of the people in general.
“We didn’t tell them enough about the need for hard struggle, about what China was like in the old days and what kind of a country it was to become. That was a serious error on our part.”
The party decided that, in addition to delivering economic growth, it needed a greater dose of nationalism. Almost inevitably, the party’s Propaganda Department stressed China’s humiliation by foreign powers from the mid-19th to mid-20th century, beginning with the Opium War and focusing on Japan’s invasion of China in the 1930s and 1940s.
The Communists understood well how the Japanese invasion had unified the people of China and created nationalism as a force in the country, transforming it from what the revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen called a tray of “loose sand.”
In fact, in 1972, when Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka visited China to establish diplomatic relations, he started to apologize for his country’s aggression but Mao Zedong cut him off, saying it was the communists who should thank Japan, because without the Japanese invasion, Mao and his followers could never have won power in China.
While Mao was grateful to Japan for helping the communists win power, from the 1990s on the communists have been using the Japanese invasion to help them remain in power.
But the party did not reckon on the cumulative effect that strident anti-Japanese rhetoric year after year would have on Japan. Not surprisingly, it fanned the flames of rightwing forces in Japan.
As Vogel said in his speech, “The Chinese have created their worst fears.”
Today, anti-Japanese sentiment is high in China and the government has become a prisoner of its own propaganda as the Internet multiplies the impact of public pressure on the authorities.
Chickens hatched by the party have come home to roost.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator. Email:Frank.firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @FrankChing1