Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Japan and China – Shouting across the water

CHINA'S official news agency, Xinhua, usually prefers to play down the extent of any public protest. But its reporting on recent anti-Japanese unrest has erred on the other side. On September 18th, some Chinese and foreign observers had predicted that Chinese might take to the streets in large numbers to protest against Japan’s continuing detention of a Chinese fisherman accused of ramming Japanese patrol boats near the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in the East China Sea. That day happened to be an emotive one relating to Japan’s occupation of north-eastern China in 1931. In the event, the turnout was paltry.

Xinhua however, says there have been widespread protests across China, including in Hong Kong and “China’s Taiwan”. Widely scattered they have been, but the news agency has avoided comparison with the last major anti-Japanese outburst in China in 2005 when thousands demonstrated in Beijing, Shanghai and elsewhere. The contrast between those protests and the latest ones involving groups of just a few dozen people (a bit bigger in Hong Kong) has been striking. Xinhua has rightly commented on the anger directed at Japan by Chinese internet users, but has oversold the story on the streets.

There are a couple of obvious explanations for why the protests on September 18th were not bigger. One is that in Beijing, at least, it rained. A bigger deterrent, however, is likely to have been disapproving signals sent by the authorities beforehand. A Diaoyu islands protest group was quick to deny a Japanese report that it had received official permission to demonstrate. Rumours spread through social networking media that the authorities had stepped up surveillance on campuses of potential protesters. In 2005, the government initially appeared to be giving protesters a nod and a wink (it soon changed its mind as they threatened to get out of control and create serious economic and diplomatic damage).

China has reason now to play up the strength of domestic public opinion in its dealings with Japan, while discouraging large-scale manifestations of it.

Nationalist protests in China have a history of turning against the government (the protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989 tried to shield themselves from government intervention by describing themselves as “patriotic”). China’s economy may still be growing strongly, despite the global economic downturn, but graduate unemployment has grown considerably since 2005 and many urban residents worry about how the economy will fare in the longer term.

A recent report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a think tank, describes the authorities’ ambivalence towards public sentiment on foreign policy issues, even when such sentiment appears to support government policy. The authors, Linda Jakobson and Dean Knox, said many observers in China believed that nationalist opinion expressed through the Chinese media, including the internet, was becoming a restraint on officials’ freedom of action, especially in dealings with Japan or America.

Chinese diplomats like to highlight this restraint as a way of giving themselves leverage in negotiations, but they worry about giving public opinion free rein. My route to work takes me past the Japanese embassy. Rarely have I seen so many police deployed around it as in the past few days. And for all the furor online, most of the time there has been nary a protester to be seen. The Economist

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