Anti-Japanese protests pose challenge for China

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It is not surprising that Chinese President Hu Jintao and his colleagues decided in mid-April to cool down anti-Japanese protests: a body blow has been dealt to China’s reputation as a responsible member of the global community. The fact that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) administration was close to losing control over xenophobic crowds has again alerted Beijing to the reality that nationalism is a double-edged sword. There are also signs that CCP factions not allied with Hu and his sidekick, Premier Wen Jiabao, have used the worsening crisis with Japan to fault the way that the Hu-Wen team has conducted its foreign policy.

A simple cost-benefit analysis would seem to suggest that Beijing has lost more than it gained in this confrontation with Japan – the worst in recent memory. The unexpectedly vehement outpouring of anti-Japan sentiments – apparently based on Tokyo’s refusal to face up to history – has produced some results with which Beijing would be happy. For example, together with similar (though less disorderly) outbursts in South Korea, the protests have seriously hurt Tokyo’s chances of securing permanent membership in the UN Security Council (PMUNSC). Also, the three weeks of often violent demonstrations have probably persuaded Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to postpone – at least until next year – his much-criticized visit to the Yasukuni Shrine. And Tokyo has felt obligated to suggest the formation of a Japanese-Chinese joint committee on the publication of historical textbooks.

Much as Beijing might have wanted to teach Tokyo a lesson and to prevent Japan’s gaining a PMUNSC – which will give a big boost to Koizumi’s bid to turn Japan into a “normal country” that has “normal” defense forces – it had not been the original intention of the Hu-Wen leadership to plunge Sino-Japan relations into such a new low. After all, at the end of the National People’s Congress (NPC) last month, Wen had floated an olive branch to Tokyo by noting for the first time since Koizumi started visiting the Yasukuni Shrine in 2001 that both sides should “enthusiastically create conditions” for high-level exchanges. Moreover, Beijing has indicated that anti-Japanese protests – both at the official and popular level – are only aimed at “a minority of right-wing militarists”. The blanket coverage of the past fortnight’s events in the Japanese media, however, ensured that Beijing has alienated pretty much all sectors of Japanese society. The latter include business corporations whose investment and technology Beijing still desires despite the huge strides that China has made in attracting US and European capital and know-how.

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