The abstraction of diplomacy and the reality of rocks through windows

From my blog reading, some of the widespread conclusions about the ongoing stream of anti-Japanese protests in China are:

  1. The nominal grievances, Japan’s textbooks that gloss over culpability for wartime atrocities and generally insufficient post-war contrition, are, in reality, minor.
  2. The protests were sanctioned by the state, which is tacitly condoning broad, anti-Japanese sentiment.
  3. There is a whiff of hypocrisy about the whole affair.

So, rather than a spontaneous outpouring of grassroots sentiment in response to a profound, historical grievance, the facile textbook row is just theatrically blunt diplomacy rooted in grubby, contemporary issues, such as competition over East China Sea gas deposits and Japan’s bid for permanent representation on the UN Security Council.

Stripping the lingering romance of the heroic Anti Fascist War reduces the protests to messaging, and the protestors to manipulated patsies. The government has decided to send an implicit threat: We have not forgotten and we are still angry. (It’s only implicit at the state level. In published vox populi quotes it’s explicit.) The dismal subtext of the message is that the legacy of the War, six decades later and counting, may still be future retribution.

Pardon my Outraged Masses
To engineer its message, the government is indulging in a timeworn bit of political sleight-of-hand. Stoking nationalist fury at Them (in this case, the Japanese) amplifies the diplomatic message, fills an ideological void and deflects activism that might otherwise be focused inconveniently inward. This old chestnut seems to fare particularly well in places where the state has a functional monopoly on public discourse. The refrain is familiar from other times and places: All your miseries are caused by the Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Tutsis, Blacks, Irish, Latin Americans, etc.

The Chinese government has been careful to stress that its complaint is with the Japanese government, not the Japanese people, but news coverage and official statements are loaded with charged language. (Unfortunately, my language limitations mean that I have to use Xinhua and the China Daily, which are for foreign consumption, as proxies for broader press coverage. I would be interested in hearing if the Chinese language press is the same, better or worse.) Some of the language that has caught my eye in the China Daily in just the past three days:

Japan Told to Face Up to Past” (April 13)

“…whitewashing of its wartime atrocities…”
“…bad practice and attitude…”
“…history of aggression…”

Japan’s textbook revisions cause for concern” (April 14)

“… all its killings of civilians, exploiting, especially sexually, of women, brutalities…”
“… orgy of atrocity…”
“…the three bloodiest massacres…”

Schroeder to Japan: Be self critical of history” (April 14)

“…heinous crimes…”
“…wanton slaughtering…”
“…germ wars…”

I’ve deliberately pulled these phrases out of context because that is how they work. It doesn’t matter how measured or balanced the language around them is. These are “villain words” that, repeated often enough (the essence of propaganda) will leave a deep impression regardless of efforts to balance coverage or to mitigate the impact by distinguishing between Japanese “rightists” or the government and the population-at-large. Charged words stick. When passions are sufficiently inflamed, the ultimate result becomes the following: Japanese historical crimes + you are Japanese = your crimes.

Also worth a look are the China Daily editorial cartoons of the past six weeks, several of which invoke Japan. I pulled them together on one web page here [link now dead, see original pages below -WM]. Samurai outfits and Tojo moustaches are caricatures of Japanese militarism (the cartoon featuring Koizumi being notable for its artistic restraint). The depicted attempt to “buy” a Security Council seat reminds me of anti-Semitic propaganda. The thread began on March 9th, well before the demonstrations got going. (The original pages are here: March 9, March 16, March 28, March 30, April 7, April 12.)

Speaking of anti-Semitism, one sadly recurring outcome of this kind of propaganda is a pogrom. Charged language and imagery can be read as state-sanctioned contempt and, thus, as a license to violence. The Chinese should be sensitive to this situation, as their diaspora has been on the receiving end of this very tactic, most recently in the Indonesian riots of 1999. There is a reason why ethnic Chinese across much of Southeast Asia, who are often the backbone of merchant class, take local names and try very hard to assimilate and keep low profiles.

This may all sound a bit hysterical, and I don’t think that an actual anti-Japanese pogrom is going to erupt in China, but threats to people and property are escalating on both sides. Furthermore, the attitudes and prejudices that this kind of propaganda teaches do not go away. They just go out of view, to be expressed later as racism, violence and, if we’re particularly unlucky, future policy as another indoctrinated generation assumes power.

My xenophobes can lick your xenophobes
Of course the long-term consequences of this will be to drive Japan towards the US and further empower the Japanese right, the very element of Japanese society most likely aggravate Chinese fears. Thus the great circle of self-fulfillment might roll on.

None of this exonerates the Japanese government, which regularly seems to find ways to irritate neighbors who still remember the war. The Koreans, fellow victims of the Co-Prosperity Sphere and no slouches at nationalism themselves, are also fond of good anti-Japanese demonstration. In the years I lived in Singapore, I encountered many bad memories of the Japanese occupation and much lingering ill will. But no one is guilty of their father’s crime, even if they don’t apologize sufficiently for it, and a regional cycle of nationalism and escalating tension won’t do anyone any good.

I like to think of myself as an optimist, and I don’t expect a full-scale crisis. But it’s sad that the Japanese foreign ministry has to advise Japanese citizens against travel to China, and it’s worse that the abstraction of diplomacy has already become the reality of rocks through windows. My neighbors are Japanese. They have a three-year-old daughter who is infatuated with my cats and giggles so loudly that I can hear her through the walls. I wonder how they are feeling right now.

One final China Daily quote, from an editorial published on March 28:

“It is the young, after all, who urgently need to learn about the falseness of promises offered by nationalism and its romanticization of national glory.

The truth is, the past never disappears. In fact, it often returns to haunt one.

It is an unforgivable sin to turn one’s face away from past atrocities while many of the victims are still suffering from the abuse they endured.”

I couldn’t agree more.

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