Protests below China’s Station

Let me discuss recent anti-Japanese demonstrations in China, in a hypothetical conversation with a few intellectual Chinese friends of mine. They include an international political scientist who has a sophisticated ability to defend current Chinese policy and a prodemocracy activist who seems to have languished since the Tiananmen Square Incident in 1989.

Anti-Japanese demonstrations in China have a history that dates back to the 1919 May Fourth Movement, which was a popular campaign against the warlord-led government of that time.

Sakuzo Yoshino, who was a progressive intellectual in those days, noted that Japanese themselves had fought against “Satcho” (Satsuma-Choushu) military bureaucratic rule since the Meiji Era. Thus he expressed hope that the Chinese movement would also succeed.

“Gaining freedom from bureaucratic military rule should be the only way to establish a strong friendship between our two countries,” he said. “So-called friendship as we know it today is a major obstacle to true friendship.”

I know today’s establishment intellectuals in China won’t accept this statement. But in the democratic atmosphere that prevailed prior to Tiananmen, they would have reacted favorably to an appeal for true friendship between both democratic Japan and China, not the so-called friendship defined by politics and pork.

Meanwhile, anti-Japanese campaigns following the May FourthMovement stoked anti-Chinese feelings in Japan. Before that, Japanese intellectuals who supported Sun Wen and other leaders of the Republican Revolution (1911) cherished a sense of camaraderie in the Chinese revolution. Those campaigns, however, revived Japanese nationalism.

An anti-Japanese campaign in China stimulates the Japanese sense of patriotism. That’s how popular sentiment on both sides plays out. Recent anti-Japanese protests are likely to cause a similar backlash in Japan.

We know that nationalistic outbursts on both sides led eventually to war. In the meantime, the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) carried out an overt campaign of “offense and contempt” against Japanese residents in China.

Explaining that campaign to foreign researchers had long been a difficult exercise for me until Palestinians mounted the first intifada (uprising) against Israel in 1997. The intifada boiled down to a strategy of harassment and torment, such as boycotting commerce and contact with Israelis.

Prior to the Manchurian Incident (1931), Chinese mounted their version of an intifada against Japanese for example, refusing to sell food, stoning women and children, and abusing them. As a result, many Japanese left China, putting in jeopardy Japanese interests gained after the Russo-Japanese war.

That situation continued, more or less, until the outbreak of the Lukow-Kiao (Marco Polo Bridge) Incident of 1937, although some Chinese politicians were determined to avert a clash with Japan, such as Wang Chao-ming, who tried to defuse the bomb.

Experience in this period, however, does not, and should not, offer much of a lesson for today’s China.

Like the Palestinians today, China was weak in those times. Resistance by military force was not a winning option. So China tried to drive out Japanese by means short of war that is, harassment and torment. This was the message of the Japanese defense team in the Tokyo Trials who maintained that Japan had waged a war of self-defense.

Times have changed. China today is a great power in its own right. There is no reason whatsoever why the country should use such mean methods to assert itself.

The Boxer Rebellion (1900) marked the first time that Chinese had demonstrated against foreigners and foreign powers. The Chinese were angry that their country had become half-colonized. But, to my knowledge, such xenophobia was a rarity in the four millennia that China ruled the world. To be blunt, antiforeign demonstrations seem to mirror an inferiority complex, a sense of powerlessness.

A digression: An earlier edition of Fusosha’s controversial history textbook included anti-American passages. I mentioned this at a U.S. meeting, and the response from American participants was unanimous: “Everybody around the world is speaking ill of America, so we don’t care about what they say.”

I was impressed. “Indeed, Americans are a great people,” I thought to myself. I hope both Japanese and Chinese appreciate the moral.