The spread of the Internet in China is turning out to be a boon for China watchers in Japan. The Web now serves as an outlet for news not found in newspapers or on television but that can be deemed important and valuable. It also offers an opportunity to learn about the real feelings Chinese people have toward Japan.
But while the Internet has a potential for deepening mutual understanding, the possibility remains that emotional arguments will drown out dispassionate ones.
Yoshikazu Shimizu, a Tokyo Shimbun reporter who was stationed for more than 10 years in China and Hong Kong as a correspondent, told a session of the recently held Japan-China Media Symposium how the spread of Internet in China has been helping him.
“When I finished my 1991-94 stint in Beijing, I made subscription orders for various Chinese newspapers and magazines including People’s Daily so that I could read them back in Japan,” he said.
“But when I finished my latest three-year China stint in January, I bought just a notebook-type personal computer that works in the Chinese environment.”
As an example of important news not reported by China’s official media but immediately spread over the Internet, Shimizu mentioned an “internal speech” Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji made at Qinghua University, his alma mater, on June 5, 2001.
In his speech, Zhu revealed his real thoughts, describing the Japanese economic situation as hopeless and criticizing those within the Chinese Communist Party who were talking hawkishly about the U.S. spy plane incident of April 1 that year.
Shimizu said that the speech, fed into the Worldwide Web by students who heard it, contained “surprising news” for reporters: Zhu said that the government intended to slow down the widely publicized reform program designed to lessen the tax and other financial burden on farmers, an extension of a policy first adopted in the eastern province of Anhui.
China’s official media reported the policy change only about two months later, according to Shimizu.
The symposium was sponsored by the Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association and the Information Office of China’s State Council to mark the 30th anniversary of the restoration of diplomatic ties between Japan and China.
Apart from the session on Internet-related issues, another session discussed the theme “The role of print media — how to fill the communication gap.”
In the plenary meeting, Zhao Qizheng, minister for the Information Office of China’s State Council, cited Chinese statistics showing that the number of Internet users in China has reached 33.7 million while the number of Web sites created in the country has topped 280,000.
A recent study by the U.S. Nielsen Netrating shows that the number of Internet users at Chinese homes stands at 56.6 million, the second-largest in the world, he added.
He explained that 2.6 percent of China’s whole population are online users.
Citing an unidentified study, Zhao said that English accounts for 68.4 percent of the all Web pages, Japanese 5.9 percent, Chinese 3.9 percent and Korean 1.9 percent.
Apart from four Web sites run by China’s main news-gathering organizations ( www.xinhuanet.com; www.people.com.cn; www.china.org.cn and www.cri.com.cn), local media also run Web sites for Japanese language users, including Sichuan’s www.newssc.net, he said.
Touching on the function of Internet as an outlet for Chinese people’s gut feelings toward Japan, Tokyo Shimbun’s Shimizu reported some opinions sent in by readers and published online after government authorities in Tokyo approved of a controversial history book by a Japanese Education Ministry panel.
Among the examples of comments he cited were: “Americans are better than Japanese. Our real enemy is Japan,” “Japan is like Germany after World War I” and “The Yamato race is evil-minded from the beginning and must be eradicated from the face of the Earth.”
Shimizu said, “We don’t think that these examples represent China’s public opinion. But we cannot just dismiss them because they express a sentiment that exists in Chinese society.”
Shimizu said that the Internet has a potential of getting rid of unnecessary misunderstanding between the two countries and promoting better understanding of each other.
“But another side of Internet is that it can excessively stir up feelings about each other and that extreme opinions appearing on the Internet can influence diplomatic policy. Thus, the Internet is a double-edged sword. The important factor is whether the users are able to use the medium in a sensible manner or not,” he concluded.
Mitsunaga Tabata, a former TBS TV Beijing correspondent and now professor at Kanagawa University, used the Internet to follow Chinese people’s reactions to two incidents.
The first happened at Yasukuni Shrine on the night of Aug. 14, 2001, following Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visit to the shrine the day before.
Feng Jinhua, a 31-year-old Chinese man living in Japan, wrote a Chinese phrase equivalent to “Die!” in red spray paint on a stone lion statue within the shrine’s compound. He was later given a suspended jail term of 10 months.
The other incident involved Zhao Wei, a popular media personality in China. She became the target of criticism after she wore a dress with a design looking like the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Rising Sun flag during a photo session in New York.
Back in China, an angry 31-year-old unemployed man punched her and splashed her with urine and feces stuffed into a plastic bottle. Police freed the attacker after placing him in a jail for just one night.
Tabata, who reads online opinions of Chinese, mostly in the chat forum of people.com. managed by People’s Daily, said that most of the Web site visitors’ opinions ignored the fact that Feng’s and the jobless man’s actions were criminal acts.
But one Chinese after another praised Feng as a hero and his act as a noble gesture, he said.
In a poll by people.com, 69 percent of 9,958 people said they supported Feng’s action, 22 percent understood his feelings, 6 percent said they did not understand and 3 percent had no opinion, according to Tabata.
Except for one Web user who argued that a court should decide whether the media personality Zhao has committed a crime and that vigilantism was not acceptable, there were no comments censuring the attack on the media personality.
“I was surprised to see traditional contemptuous phrases against Japan such as xiao riben (tiny Japan), riben guizi (Japanese devils) and weiguo (a country of hunched and short people) cropping up in people.com.’s forum,” Tabata said.
“I am not trying to be sarcastic. But I find it a good thing that I can ‘read’ the real voices of Chinese people which are not taken up by newspapers and magazines with large circulations.”
But at the same time, he voiced a complaint.
“These voices certainly exist and we should not cast our eyes away from them. But I am disappointed that their arguments are extremely monotonous,” he said. “Repeating the simplistic argument, for example, that the Japanese prime minister’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine will lead to the resurrection of Japan’s militaristic spirit, which has died, is not persuasive.”
Another participant at the symposium He Jiazheng, vice chief of the Internet Center of People’s Daily, asked the Japanese people to understand the trauma the Chinese suffered from Japan’s war of aggression against China.
“The situation is parallel to the fact that the Americans do not think seriously about the trauma the Japanese have suffered from the atomic bombings,” he said. “It is a good thing to know the psychological situation of the Chinese. This is a kind of communication.”
“Because events that psychologically hurt the Chinese people occurred one after another recently, such as the approval of a controversial history textbook and the Yasukuni Shrine visit, extremely harsh opinions and arguments came out. We erased a considerable number of such comments and expressions from our forum.”
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