Monday, April 18, 2005

China questions 

The things just keep getting more and more interesting in China:
"Anti-Japan protests swelled to their largest size yet in China on Sunday as relations between the two Asian powers continued their downward slide.

"Japan's foreign minister, in Beijing for talks with his Chinese counterpart, called for an emergency meeting between the countries' two leaders, both of whom will be in Indonesia later this week. But China didn't respond to the request, and the likelihood of a meeting seemed dim...

"Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people burned Japanese flags, tossed bottles and hurled paint at shops selling Japanese goods in Shenzhen, a booming industrial city near Hong Kong. A day earlier, mobs tossed bottles through windows of Japan's consulate in Shanghai, vandalized Japanese-made cars and smashed several Japanese restaurants."
A few thoughts:

1) The current stand-off between China and Japan presents an interesting moral conundrum: China is in the right as far as the official reason for the dispute is concerned - Japan still has not, sixty years on, come to terms with its role in the Second World War. Unlike Germany, which has tried very hard to exorcise the Nazi demons and make amends with the victims of its past aggression, Japan still can't get it why the rest of the East Asia resents having been invaded by the Japanese Imperial Army, it doesn't seem to accept that its actions led to deaths of millions, often in gruesome atrocities like the Rape of Nanking, and it continues to glorify and whitewash its militaristic past in public observance and history books.

Yet, Japan today is a Western democracy and a strong US ally (I fear that if I describe Japan as a "liberal market democracy", this tag will be querried the same way the "Holy Roman Empire" had been). China, on the other hand, is ruled by the legatees of people responsible for the deaths of several times as any of their own countrymen as were killed by the Japanese.

Japan still falsifies its history of relations with China; China still falsifies its history of relations with itself.

Furthermore, Japan is a stable, non-expansionist state, reasonably - albeit not completely - happy with its current role in international affairs. China, on the other hand, has clear designs against one small democracy (Taiwan), hegemonic ambitions over the whole region, and even greater dreams of superpowerdom to rival the United States.

As distasteful as Japan's continuing historical insensitivity is, it's clear where our loyalties should lie.

2) But revisionist history textbooks are, of course, merely an excuse for China's rulers to turn up the heat on Japan. Mao's and Deng's heirs are the ultimate pragmatists (what else could you expect from Marketist-Leninists); in truth, they couldn't care less what Japan thinks about its war-time history, or that the Japanese government never apologized for committing atrocities against the Chinese people. The current protests are being engineered by the Communist Party to signal its displeasure with Japan, which has been reasserting itself recently and is, therefore, becoming a clear regional competitor. Strengthening of Japan's alliance with the United States, Tokyo's increasingly close relations with Taipei, as well as the drive to secure a permanent seat on the UN's Security Council, all have China's Reds seeing red.

3) Make no mistake; the anti-Japanese riots are not a spontaneous expression of pent-up anger among the ordinary Chinese. This is not because there is no pent-up anger against Japan (which there understandably is in a country where many people can still remember the war), and not because spontaneous explosions do not occur in authoritarian societies - but because spontaneous explosions would not allowed to snowball for days. Had these tens of thousands been throwing bottles at the local Communist Party headquarters there would have been tanks in the streets by now. There is little doubt of official involvement behind, and sanction of, the rallies and riots.

4) Aside from sending a message internationally, as far as China's rulers are concerned there is also a safety valve element to the protests' utility. It is a phenomenon well known from other parts of the world, notably the Middle East: let's keep the population distracted with foreign enemies - better that they shout off against phantoms from abroad than against their own overlords. You can also be certain that the security services are keeping a watchful eye on those most enthusiastic among the amateur rioters; after all, a person who one day is angry enough about a historical slights to throw a brick through the window of a Japanese shop, is tomorrow potentially capable of doing the same his own regime.

5) Where will it all lead? To the eventual de-escalation. No one wants war, but China certainly intends to make a point and make it strong. However, Beijing's grandstanding is unlikely to have a desired effect on Japan; probably quite the opposite - the more assertive China becomes, the more Japan will want to ensure that it's capable of responding.

Longer term, all we have are questions: how long can China maintain its current economic and political course? When will the Chinese middle class reach the critical mass to demand more than just economic freedom? Can China survive as a unitary state? What role will the rapidly increasing Christian population play? Most importantly: can East Asia last without war until China - eventually and hopefully - makes the transition to a reasonably free and reasonably democratic modern state?


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