In this wide-ranging feature following a recent visit to Chengdu, China, Jeff Kingston examines Sino-Japanese relations and challenges facing the government in Beijing

Last December when I visited Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province in southwest China, people there were still agitated about Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands dispute following the Sept. 7 collision between a Chinese trawler and a Japan Coast Guard patrol vessel off the island group in the East China Sea that Japan calls Senkaku and China Diaoyu.

These days, as usual in Sino-Japanese spats, tempers have receded, but it doesn’t take much to reignite mutual animosities. Whether it’s tainted frozen gyoza (pork dumplings), textbooks, giant jellyfish, acid rain or territory, the two governments find lots to argue about. Yet, neighborly squabbles never quite derail one of the world’s most important economic relationships, one grounded in pragmatic regard for national self-interest.

Japanese have come to associate Chengdu with the smashing of the Ito Yokado storefront there, endlessly replayed on television news.

Chengdu is, however, also a smoggy, sooty and sprawling city of 11 million with a thriving teahouse culture and some lovely parks, temples and rivers. For most travelers, it is also a springboard for trips into Tibetan areas in remote Sichuan and beyond. Incidentally, Chengdu additionally lays claim to being the hometown of mabodofu, where this dish of ground-meat and tofu over rice is served liberally seasoned with chili and sansho (prickly ash spice).

The scruffy city is also known for its panda-breeding center on the outskirts where I saw dozens of the giants, ranging from 3-month-old cubs to playful juveniles and indolent adults. A visit to the center is not complete without viewing the panda porn films that are shown to get pandas in the mood and show them the ropes; officials say that this technique has boosted natural breeding by 30 percent.

“What you must understand is we Chinese all hate Japanese.”

So began the Q&A at Sichuan University in Chengdu following my talk there about Sino-Japanese relations and my new book, “Contemporary Japan” (Wiley, 2011). I heard close variations of this comment so frequently throughout my weeklong visit that I began to suspect it must be a typical practice sentence in English conversation classes — an edgy variation on “This is a pen.” A coed followed up by asking, “Aren’t Japanese aggressive and betraying by nature?” Next along came, “Why are Japanese so wasteful?”

I was peppered with questions and comments in a similar vein, suggesting that this classroom of some 100 university students and a sprinkling of professors was not a promising target for marketing a book that was not about hammering Japan.

When I pointed out that young Japanese have not wronged China, I was told “Yes, but we hate them anyway.”

We also had a lively discussion about the Diaoyu/Senkaku island group and the “unjust” actions of the Japanese government. When I explained that the Japanese government claims that there is no territorial dispute because its sovereignty over the disputed islands is indisputable, I hit a raw nerve. Readers need to understand that the Chinese government also asserts that its claims to the islands are indisputable.

It is not surprising that many Chinese are anti-Japanese because they are exposed to so much damning information on a daily basis. The sentiments expressed by university students are a testimony to the government’s powerful influence over how people view and act in the world through its control of education and the media.

Channel-surfing in the evening, virtually every night I found a drama or movie depicting scenes of Japanese wartime brutality. Students told me that from middle school on they learn a great deal about the atrocities committed by Japanese in China. This focus on Japanese aggression overshadows all other narratives and there seems little appreciation of Japan’s contributions to China’s economic development since the 1980s.

Young people buy into the “cool Japan” image and crave Japanese products for their quality and design, but the vilifying discourse has been so pervasively disseminated and reinforced that it does not take much to elicit a knee-jerk response.

Certainly the Japanese government does itself no favors in mishandling the past and sustaining perceptions that Japanese remain unremorseful about wartime atrocities, but deeply ingrained popular attitudes in China leave me pessimistic about prospects for reconciliation.

As one longstanding Western resident of Chengdu told me, “Very few Chinese recognize their blind spot regarding the Japanese. More recognize their blind spot about the Dalai Lama and Tibet.” Crisis: Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s ill-considered visits between 2001-06 to Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo (which honors Class A war criminals along with the nation’s war dead) provoked a deep freeze in bilateral relations, but this could be plausibly chalked up to his personal agenda.

In contrast, the recent contretemps regarding sovereignty over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands is official government policy.

The then Transport Minister Seiji Maehara sparked the row by authorizing the arrest of a Chinese trawler crew in Japanese-claimed waters. Following a Cabinet reshuffle, as foreign minister he then gratuitously threw oil on the fire by describing China’s reaction as hysterical — a comment showing he had not quite learned the ropes of diplomacy.

His repeated assertion that there was no territorial dispute goaded Beijing just as Tokyo glowers when Moscow makes the same comment about the disputed Northern Territories/Southern Kuriles. It was like a weather forecaster nattering on about the lovely sunny weather while rain pelted down and thunderclaps boomed in the background.

Remarkably, almost overnight, these small, uninhabited islets have become hallowed ground for most Chinese, a sacred site where collective memories of Japanese oppression can be consecrated and commemorated. A number of students admitted that until the flare-up they had not known about the territorial dispute, but intense media coverage transformed the islets into a talisman of Japanese perfidy and continued arrogance.

The Diaoyu are portrayed in China as war booty seized by Japan following the Sino-Japanese War of 1895-96, when Japan joined the club of Western imperial powers and imposed unequal treaties on China, claimed other territory and also demanded a huge indemnity. These actions undermine Japan’s artful claims to have been acting in the wartime 1930s and ’40s as liberators of Asians from the yoke of Western imperialism and remain an open sore in bilateral relations.

As tensions escalated over the continued detention of the ship’s captain (the crew had been quickly released), trips and exchanges were cancelled, Beijing dialed up the rhetoric and suddenly Japan found it no longer could import the rare-earth minerals vital to many high-tech products, and in which China enjoys a virtual supply monopoly.

Sensibly, Japan blinked and defused the situation by releasing the captain, but both sides remained seething, while the trust painstakingly built up after Koizumi left office in 2006, evaporated.

The Japanese media reported that under the Koziumi administration, the two governments had worked out a modus vivendi to avoid just such an escalating rhubarb by deporting rather than arresting violators. By arresting and then releasing the crew under heavy pressure from Beijing, Tokyo looked to be kowtowing. This stoked anti-Chinese jingoism even among Japanese who are ordinarily moderate and conservatives took advantage of the ugly mood to stage a rally outside the Chinese Embassy in Tokyo on Oct. 2.

The brouhaha further intensified that month with three rallies on Oct. 17 in different cities across China, including Chengdu.

A crowd of some 2,000 or so marched for less than three hours through the streets of the city carrying banners and chanting, “Defend the Diaoyu Islands,” “Boycott Japanese goods” and “Fight Japan.” The marchers, in a scene replayed over and over in Japanese media, smashed the front window of the (Japanese) Ito Yokado store, torched some Japanese vehicles and vandalized other Japanese businesses.

It appears that the demonstration was planned a few weeks ahead, before the Tokyo rally, and that it was widely anticipated. QQ is a social networking service in China that was used to get word out about the protest.

The dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu was clearly the instigating factor, and targeting Japanese businesses sent a message, but many people I spoke with suspect behind-the-scenes intrigue. Everyone told me the authorities had prior knowledge of the demonstration, and some students told me that in the run-up to the day some professors even warned against self-immolation, a sign of just how high emotions ran.

So this was not at all a spontaneous outburst of public anger, but rather an orchestrated performance that tapped into anti-Japanese sentiments.

Ito Yokado apparently told its employees to stay home on the day of the protests and security was heavier than usual in the vicinity — but unable to prevent the rampage.

I was told that the Communist Youth League was involved in staging the protests and that the security forces stood by passively because students require special handling; the authorities feared a violent crackdown could spark a massive backlash.

In a statement issued the day after the protests, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said, “We maintain that patriotism should be expressed rationally and in line with the law. We don’t agree with irrational actions that violate laws and regulations.” Whipping post: A Western political analyst based in Chengdu argues that, “Communism is a dysfunctional relic in China so nationalism has become the unifying ideology.”

He added, “Visceral anti-Japanese sentiments exist . . . they are an expression of the effectiveness of prolonged indoctrination. It is misleading to suggest that issues like inflation and growing disparities were the main factors in the protests, although they do generate some of the anger that animated protesters.

A Chinese intellectual suggested, “The anti-Japanese demonstrations were a way to change the channel, a way to shift attention away from the Nobel prize, inflation, disparities and other domestic grievances and unite people against a familiar enemy. Tapping into the reservoir of anti-Japanese antipathy continues to be a convenient pressure valve.”

The government has found that stoking nationalism is easier than managing it. In letting the genie out of the bottle, especially after the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement targeted the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the government has ignited a populist anger that waxes and wanes. But even as it orchestrates events, the Party has to cope with unruly popular responses that take advantage of the political space opened to displays of patriotic fervor.

Widespread grievances over corruption, spiking food prices and a real-estate bubble that puts housing way beyond the reach of most Chinese are sources of potential political instability. So even as the CCP can claim credit for lifting millions of people out of crushing poverty, and creating a vast middle class, it is facing rising expectations that are not being met.

In this context, Japan serves a useful purpose even if it has done more than any other country in propelling China’s impressive modernization by virtue of its large amounts of infratructure-related development assistance, technical cooperation and massive investments.

Jeff Kingston is Director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.

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