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Home > East Asia > 

Chinese protests were manipulated
Paul Lin
5/3/2005

From all appearances the wave of anti-Japanese protests in China have reached an end. Following a meeting of the Chinese Politburo, the Xinhua News Agency reported that the focus should be on construction and development.

An article in the People's Daily talked of the importance of constructing a harmonious society for the sake of stability, saying that the flames of anti-Japanese anger needed to be extinguished. The article combined the ideas of taking economic construction as the center, as advocated by Deng Xiaoping, former president Jiang Zemin's reform while developing stable diplomatic ties and President Hu Jintao's construction of a socialist harmonious society.

The April 17 meeting between Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing and his Japanese counterpart Machimura Nobutaka was a tense affair, ending with the men failing to shake hands. Regardless, in the interests of "extinguishing the flames of anger" Xinhua reported Machimura as saying that Japanese aggression had caused much harm to the Chinese people in recent history, for which Japan felt a deep remorse, and again offered his apologies.

Japan, Xinhua said, had learned the lessons of history, and would continue on the road to peace. In this way Xinhua was able to claim a major diplomatic victory for Beijing, as "little Japan" had backed down, leaving no more reason for people to take their anger to the streets.

According to The Economist, Japan has officially apologized for its activities in the Sino-Japanese war on 17 occasions, but it appears, at least in China's eyes, with insufficient contrition. What-ever the actual wording of this apology, it should be made public and taken as an apology, accepted by the Chinese government, for past Japanese aggression.

Given that Xinhua has signaled official recognition for the apology made during this meeting, the problem should finally be laid to rest. The concern is that this apology will again be discounted when Beijing needs to manipulate public opinion for the sake of nationalism.

For in reality, this wave of anti-Japanese sentiment has been manipulated by the government from the very beginning. This was made quite apparent in the anti-Japanese rallies in Beijing, the first of which involved thousands of people, while the second drew just scores of people, due to the intervention of the authorities. The violence was never allowed to get out of hand due to the presence of riot police at the protests. Lives were not put in danger and damage was kept to a minimum, so that in case compensation had to be made, it would not prove too costly.

The effect was intended to leave a strong impression on other countries, who will now know that not giving Beijing due consideration, and offending Chinese public opinion, has serious implications.

They hoped the fear instilled in the Japanese people during this series of events would have a similar effect to that felt in Taiwan -- using pressure on businesspeople to achieve political goals. Instead, China has earned itself a reputation for being an unruly, uncivilized nation. Also, its refusal to pay compensation has made it look unreliable, giving investors pause for thought.

Japanese businesspeople are not likely to be as lily-livered as the Taiwanese entrepreneurs, coming as they do from a country endowed with a warrior spirit.

In the Hong Kong media we learn that high-ranking members of China's military had planned to hold a youth conference on Sino-Japanese relations, to which senior political personnel in the People's Liberation Army (PLA) and a number of young academics were invited. The conference was to touch on topics such as Sino-Japanese tensions in recent years, how to remedy these and the future of relations.

The conference was approved by the higher echelons of the PLA. However, when Hu caught wind of the plans on his return to Beijing from an inspection tour of Shandong Province on April 10, he became angry, immediately putting an end to the whole thing.

This reveals a couple of issues. First, Hu has taken a leaf out of Mao Zedong's book. He left Beijing as soon as a major incident was unfolding, only to come back and clear up the mess. Why didn't Hu put a stop to the situation at the beginning, rather than waiting for the anti-Japanese riots to drag on for weeks?

Second, how was it that another set of large-scale protests took place in Shanghai and Shenzhen on April 16 and 17, after Hu had "clamped down on the situation" a week previously?

This was because Machimura was not due to arrive in Beijing until April 17, and the government wanted to keep the public anger simmering until that day, forcing the Japanese to step down from further confrontation.

Machimura went straight into meetings on his arrival in Beijing, and the People's Daily article appeared on the Xinhua Web site at 4:55pm the same day, with the Xinhua piece following four minutes later. Clearly, the articles had been prepared in advance and since Machimura was already in the meeting, and the intimidation provided by the protesters no longer needed, the order went for them to be dispersed.

If China has a justified gripe with Japan, it should say so directly, as South Korea has done. Instead, Beijing has plotted to organize protests to put pressure on Tokyo, only to clear the situation up later. This shows the Chinese government to be both without scruple and incompetent.

Japan has a better understanding of China than any other country. So it continued to provoke Beijing, even in the face of such violent intimidation, by standing firm on the textbooks, by allowing Japanese companies to explore oil fields in the East China Sea and by insisting that Beijing apologize and offer compensation for damage caused during the protests.

Because of this provocation, Beijing allowed the violent protests to go ahead, and Tokyo was then able to make the Japanese people see that they have a dangerous neighbor that presents a threat to their security. In turn, this consolidated the public support the Japanese government needs if it is to go ahead with its program of constitutional reform.

In fact, the thing that concerns Beijing the most is that the US-Japanese agreement to maintain peace and security across the Taiwan Strait will be an obstacle in China's military expansion. During his meeting with Machimura, however, Li was reluctant to raise this point, because the US is the dominant power. Li may have been promoted from the "Red Guard Ambassador" to foreign minister, but he is still the same bully he always was.

Paul Lin is a political commentator based in New York.

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