Beijing Finds Anti-Japan Propaganda a 2-Edged Sword


New York Times

May 3, 3005

BEIJING, May 2 - Of all the customers his paper company has worldwide, Wang Liqun appreciates Japanese the most. Unfailingly polite and punctual, they cultivate long-term business ties and always pay their bills, he says.

Yet even when he and his best clients share a quiet meal and unburden themselves with sake, they studiously steer clear of discussing the past, especially the atrocities Japan committed during its World War II-era occupation of China.

"They have a tendency to avoid sensitive topics," Mr. Wang said. So as China's popular uprising against Japan gathered steam last month, he ordered employees in his Beijing headquarters to stop buying Japanese goods "to show we have not forgotten."

Surging anti-Japan sentiment, which has plunged relations between Asia's leading powers into crisis, has been fanned in part by official propaganda and hot-headed Chinese youth. But pressure on Japan to face up to its own history was initiated, and could be sustained well into the future, by people like Mr. Wang, 37, who has an M.B.A., travels abroad, runs his own company and cares passionately about Japanese amnesia.

Japan has joined traffic jams and the housing bubble as a top concern for the urban middle class. Entrepreneurs and white-collar professionals have benefited disproportionately from China's economic policies, but many say they worry their government will not press historical grievances against Japan, a major investor and trading partner, for long.

"Our government takes a soft line on foreign policy," said Li Bin, the chief executive of Nirvana, a health club chain that has supported the anti-Japan movement. "They put economic development first. It is critical for successful people to stand up for the rights and interests of the country." Such sentiments make the Japan issue - and nationalism generally - a double-edged sword for the government.

China reversed course late last month and ordered people to let the government handle Japan itself. But the authorities are clearly worried that patriotic protests could return, perhaps as soon as May 4, the anniversary of a protest in 1919 that defined modern Chinese patriotism. More protests could put as much pressure on the Chinese government as on Japan.

The Communist Party stirs patriotic feelings to underpin its legitimacy at a time when few, even in its own ranks, put much faith in Marxism. Official propaganda and the national education system stress the indignities suffered at the hands of foreign powers from the mid-19th century through World War II. Japan, which China says killed or wounded 35 million Chinese from 1937 through 1945, gets the most attention.

This spring officials did little to stop a petition drive against permanent Japanese membership in the United Nations Security Council, to discourage a boycott of Japanese goods or even to prevent unusual and sometimes violent street protests. The government used the popular movement as leverage to demand concessions from Japan and flex its muscles at the United Nations.

But China has never made nationalism the driving force of its foreign policy. The government mainly emphasizes its desire to have a "peaceful rise" that does not impinge on its neighbors, and the authorities are nervous about disrupting the flow of investment and technology that has powered economic growth.

Moreover, anti-Japan protests have a long and, for the government, a sobering history. A student-led march on May 4, 1919, to protest the decision by World War I Allied powers that allowed Japan to take over Germany's colonial territories in China spawned Chinese resistance against Western colonialism. But the May 4 movement and uprisings in 1931 and 1937 turned against the government.

"My impression is that the well-educated elite in China are genuinely baffled and upset by how long the government has tolerated provocations from Japan," said Wenran Jiang, an expert on China-Japan relations at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. "Every anti-Japan movement has sooner or later turned against the government."

The police have broadcast a blizzard of messages to mobile phone users in major cities warning against "spreading rumors, believing rumors or joining illegal demonstrations." In recent days several organizers of online petition drives and popular protests against Japan have been detained, or their computers have been confiscated.

One major state-run newspaper published a viciously worded editorial warning that anti-Japan protests were cover for an "evil conspiracy" to undermine the government.

Even so, some urban professionals have promoted a march on the May 4 anniversary. "I think we need another march," said Guo Hui, 30, who runs his own public relations company. "I feel it needs to be peaceful and well organized. But we have to push ahead."

Mr. Guo said he had no major grievances against the government. But during an interview at a Starbucks in Beijing, which Mr. Guo recorded on his hand-held computer "to avoid any misunderstandings," he said he tended to care much more about political and diplomatic issues than his parents' generation had.

"They never got involved in anything," he said. "But I think you have certain responsibilities as an individual. If every individual says something, that has much more force than if the Foreign Ministry says it."

Whether such involvement might lay the foundation for Chinese civil society, injecting a dose of pluralism into policy making, is a matter of debate.

But a senior editor at a party newspaper says the persistence of the anti-Japan campaign and the participation of urban professionals has alarmed the authorities. Officials are accustomed to dealing with unrest among peasants and workers who feel defrauded or disenfranchised by China's economic boom, not among the urban elite, who are its primary beneficiaries.

"The white-collar middle class is supposed to be a pillar of stability," the editor said.

Mr. Li of Nirvana employs 500 people at his five health clubs in the capital.

He said his generation felt pride in China's status in the world. But he thinks the Japanese still look down on Chinese, much as they did 60 years ago. "The Japan issue is deep in our bones," he said.

When protests against Japan began in March, Mr. Li posted banners in each of his health clubs so employees and patrons could sign a petition against permanent Japanese membership on the United Nations Security Council. Some of his workers took part in the marches in April as well, though he said he warned them, "for their own safety," to be cautious about joining protests this month.

For Mr. Wang, Japan has been an issue since childhood. When he was a boy his grandmother whispered about how her family had suffered under "Japanese devils" and how his grandfather had died fighting Japanese troops.

Beijing Meili Prospect Paper Company, which Mr. Wang founded after graduating from Beijing University, has many customers in Japan. But he said he felt the weight of history every time he walked the tidy, efficient streets of Tokyo and seethed over how the Japanese systematically skirted sensitive topics.

He fears that the government will quietly drop the issue. "Their No. 1 goal is economic development, and they don't want anything to get in the way," he said.

While discussing the matter over coffee on Saturday, Mr. Wang's two mobile phones - one for business, one for personal affairs - chimed brightly in succession to alert him about new text messages. They were mass mailings from the Beijing Public Security Bureau, warning residents to stay off the streets.

"Look how worried they are," he said with an impish grin. "They lit a spark and set off a wildfire."