People’s protest a sad reminder of what China lacks

Posted: October 10th, 2010 | Tags: , , , , , , , | No Comments »

Ties between China and Japan wax and wane like the course of the sun during the day. Brief spats end as quickly as they begin and promises of better cooperation espoused by both parties leave everyone wondering what the fuss was about anyway. But the current bitterness over the Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands puts the relationship perilously close to a sunset.

Hysteria – almost all from the Chinese side – shows little sign of abating. The official rancour though masks an ugly side to the dispute. Anti-Japanese protests are sweeping Chinese cities, fuelled by ordinary citizens proud of their country’s achievements and still resentful of Japan’s wartime past.

This nationalistic streak is not a new phenomenon. In 1999, there was massive outrage when Nato planes bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo War. A report for the US Congress on the matter states:

“Tens of thousands of protestors demonstrated outside the U.S. and other NATO countries’ government facilities in Beijing and in five other Chinese cities, throwing rocks, splattering paint, and inflicting other damage. The residence of the U.S. consul-general in Chengdu was seriously damaged by fire and smoke, and protesters attempted to burn the U.S. consulate in Guangzhou. U.S. diplomatic personnel, including Ambassador James Sasser, were trapped for several days in the U.S. Embassy.”

The fervour and anger that gets wrapped up in nationalism has become a potent tool for Beijing. Authorities has demonstrated an ability to marshal it to an extent through newspaper editorials and the 50 Cent Party. Of course, demonstrations against the government or anything potentially embarrassing are a big no-no. Anything pro-Beijing is game though.

Today Japan decided to release the captain of the fishing trawler. “It is a fact that there was the possibility that Japan-China relations might worsen or that there were signs of that happening,” said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku.

That possibility became reality the last time there was an anti-Japanese convulsion in China. In April 2005, Japan’s government approved history textbooks that China and South Korea felt downplayed the country’s wartime past. Besides a few editorials in Xinhua and the China Daily newspaper, media in the Chinese mainland largely kept quiet on the issue, muzzled by the Propaganda Department.

That sense of restraint was not shared by people. Thousands marched in protest in more than a dozen cities across China and there was even an attempt to storm the Japanese embassy in Beijing. But what surprised me was that Hong Kong also participated in the vehement protests. In Mong Kok, a long row of tables covered with a white sheet snaked along the pedestrianised Sai Yeung Choi Street. Shoppers were being invited to sign the sheets in protest at the Japanese, and they were not shy in doing so. Anti-Japanese scrawls covered the sheets. It was a shock to see conservative, mild-mannered Hong Kong rally with full-throated indignation against Japan.

The ferocity of such protests calls into the question the maturity of the Chinese people. But they cannot be blamed for taking advantage of state-sanctioned opportunities to vent and rant. Citizens of other countries observe a host of traditions to help see them work through disputes and express their displeasure with one another. But most all of these platforms are denied to the Chinese. In the end, it’s just a sad reminder about the freedoms still missing in China.

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