Willy Lam: Is China Afraid of Its Own People?

In Foreign Policy, Willy Lam looks at the Chinese public’s reaction to recent tensions with Japan over disputed islands in the South China Sea:

One reason Beijing is so nervous about demonstrations is that based on past experience, “troublemakers” often take advantage of such rare occasions to air grievances regarding nondiplomatic issues, especially corruption within party and government departments. That explains why at least nine activists, according to the watchdog Chinese Human Rights Defenders, were detained or warned not to participate in the rallies in Beijing and Guangzhou. Among them were Xu Zhiyong, a lecturer at Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, and Teng Biao, a lawyer. Xu and Teng are well-known NGO activists who have stood up for victims of official corruption.

Yet the most important reason why party authorities are paranoid about public is that aside from casting aspersions Tokyo’s way, demonstrators might also zero in on Beijing’s failure to do anything substantial to recover the lost territory. Sino-Japanese wrangling over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands dates back to the early 1970s, when Washington returned the archipelago to Japan, but Beijing’s actions have never gone beyond rhetorical assertions of its “sovereignty since time immemorial.”

Nor are they likely to. Despite the leaps-and-bounds development of the Chinese Navy, a military solution seems out of the question. The islets fall within the Japanese-American mutual defense treaty, a fact that was reiterated by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she met visiting Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara in New York last week.

A more realistic solution is the one advocated by late patriarch Deng Xiaoping when he visited Japan in 1978: seeking joint development of the islands, which are rich in natural resources, while shelving sovereignty concerns. Deng said on the occasion that it might be better to let “future generations, which may be wiser” to tackle the sovereignty imbroglio. Deng’s statement, which could be interpreted as legitimizing the status quo of the Diaoyu being run by Japan on a de facto basis, has never been given much publicity in China. It is also not mentioned in high-school history textbooks.

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