Nationalism in Asia

22 April 2005

Nationalism: Not Nearly Dead Enough

By Gwynne Dyer

The Chinese government has now ordered the public to cool it — “Do not take part in protest activities that have not been approved,” said Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing on 19 April — but we all know that the violent anti-Japanese protests that swept China in the past few weeks WERE tacitly approved, at least at the start.

Perhaps the assaults on individual Japanese people and private businesses were freelance actions not sanctioned by the authorities, but the mob of thousands that smashed the windows of the Japanese embassy in Beijing on 9 April while the police looked on, like the later attacks on the Japanese ambassador’s residence and the Japanese consulate in Shanghai, could not have happened without the regime’s approval. So how seriously should we take all this?

The mobs roaming Chinese cities looked genuinely angry, and neither the Chinese nor the Japanese government has bent over backward to calm the passions that have been unleashed. Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura, making no apology for newly issued textbooks that refuse to use the word “invasion” to describe Japan’s 1937-1945 invasion of China, and refer to the Nanking massacre, in which up to 300,000 Chinese were slaughtered by Japanese troops, an “incident”, said that he was “extremely concerned about violence toward embassy activities and also toward Japanese people in China.”

China’s foreign minister retorted that “The Chinese government has never done anything for which it has to apologise to the Japanese people,” and added that Tokyo had “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.” The two men didn’t actually beat their chests and roar at each other, but you don’t need a field guide to recognise primate alpha males in action.

Things are not quite what they seem, of course. What upsets Beijing most is not some textbooks that no non-Japanese-speaker will ever read. It is Tokyo’s recent declaration that preventing a Chinese nvasion of Taiwan is a vital Japanese interest, and Japan’s increasing closeness to the Bush administration in defence matters (notably by signing up to the Balkistic Missile Defence project), and a dispute over the seabed resources around some islands (Senkaku in Japanese, Diaoyu in Chinese) that are claimed by both countries.

But it’s hard to get people worked up about such abstract questions, whereas the textbook issue touches a raw nerve in China, where the horrors of the Japanese occupation are within living memory. So the Chinese regime cynically plays this issue to whip up nationalist fervour — and the Japanese government, with equal cynicism, pretends not to understand that it has committed an offense. For there are ultra-nationalists in Japan, too, and some of them are close to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Both governments are at fault — but it is the ease with which the Beijing regime can rouse popular anger against Japan that is truly alarming. It will be hard for the regime to resist using this device again whenever it needs to deflect public anger away from its own failings. Nor can we be confident that a democratic China would be immune to this kind of manipulation by politicians using nationalist rhetoric.

China will become a democratic country sooner or later, and probably in this generation, but that will not automatically banish the ultra-nationalist virus. Indeed, history teaches that rapid democratisation is often accompanied by a temporary upsurge in aggressive nationalism.

There is unfortunately a logic to this. End the existing dictatorship, and you also remove the old apparatus of repression and compulsion. Dictatorships rarely bequeath well developed civil societies to their successors, so how does the new democratic government maintain social cohesion and mass consent for its policies? Often, the solution is to play on the crudest fear and hatred of foreigners and their evil ways: if you need to unite a community, give it an enemy.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Almost all the democratic revolutions of the past twenty years have managed to avoid this trap — but then, most of them had a disciplined leadership with genuine popular support and an explicit commitment to non-violence. A “guided” transition to democracy that is directed from above and seeks to preserve the leading position of the Communist Party, which is much more likely to be the way that democracy eventually comes to China, would not find it so easy to forego the useful political tool of rabid nationalism.

The government in Tokyo has been slow and clumsy in its response to the current outburst of anti-Japanese nationalism in China, and it has long had a policy of downplaying Japan’s guilt for the sufferings of other Asians during the Second World War in order to placate the hard-right element in Japanese politics. But mainstream Japanese politicians do not stand to gain anything by portraying China as an enemy.

It may sound strange to describe the people who currently rule China as either “mainstream” or “politicians”, but to the extent that that is what they ultimately want to become — and many of them do — portraying Japan as an enemy unfortunately does have its attractions.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. ( “Things…Party”)