By Susan L. Shirk
China’s Premier Wen Jiabao travels to Japan this week in what he is calling an “ice melting” visit, the first by a senior Chinese leader since 2000.
Chinese leaders wanted nothing to do with former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi because he insisted on paying respects to Japan’s World War II dead at the Yasukuni Shrine where 14 convicted war criminals were memorialized. They believed they had to show the Chinese public that they stood firmly against Japan’s failure to acknowledge its wartime guilt.
Yet current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is more committed to defending Japan’s war record than Koizumi ever was, as can be seen by Abe’s recent statements exculpating the Japanese army from responsibility for forcing Korean and Chinese women into brothels as “comfort women” during the Japanese occupation. Abe also has declared his intention to revise Japan’s Constitution to free it from the post-war restrictions on the Japanese military.
Why then are China’s leaders so eager to warm relations with Prime Minister Abe? Their motivations are rooted as much in China’s fragile domestic politics as in its international relations.
Relations with Japan are a domestic hot-button issue in China. Current Chinese leaders President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao are trying to escape from the corner that former President Jiang Zemin boxed them into by stoking anti-Japanese public opinion.
Jiang Zemin sought to build public support for himself and for the Communist Party after the Tiananmen crackdown of 1989 by launching a massive propaganda and educational effort called the Patriotic Education Campaign that focused on Japan’s brutal occupation of China during the 1930s and ‘40s. Jiang played up Japan’s wartime history much more than his more politically confident predecessors Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping.
When Jiang visited Japan in 1998 he demanded a written apology for the occupation from everyone he met, including the emperor. He failed to get the apology and managed to fuel an anti-Chinese backlash in Japan, but he won popular acclaim at home.
But Jiang’s efforts to bolster his domestic popularity by bashing Japan put the Communist Party at risk. Popular passions against Japan boiled over into large scale and sometimes violent mass protests in 25 cities in April 2005.
The worst nightmare of China’s leaders is a national protest movement of discontented urban and rural groups united against the regime by the shared fervor of nationalism. Similar mass movements that accused leaders of failing to defend the nation against foreign aggression brought down the Qing Dynasty in 1911 and the Republic of China in 1949.
In South Korea during the 1960s, public protests against what people viewed as the weak stance of the country’s dictatorial leaders in dealing with Japan fueled the movement toward democracy – the same thing could happen in China. Another danger is that the intense public pressure to stand up to Japan could drive China’s leaders into an inadvertent military clash with Tokyo over the contested oil and gas deposits in the East China Sea.
But calming popular sentiments toward Japan is no easy matter.
The simplest part turned out to be obtaining an informal agreement with Abe even before he became prime minister that he would not visit the Yasukuni Shrine for the time being. The Chinese declared victory by announcing that they had overcome the “political obstacle” impeding relations, and Abe simply said that he had not decided whether to visit the shrine. In signal of deference to China, Abe made it his first foreign destination after becoming prime minister last fall.
Much harder is moderating public opinion at home. Every poll shows that Chinese across the board are more negative toward Japan than toward the United States, that attitudes toward Japan have grown more hostile over time, and that young people are more obsessed with contested history issues than their elders who might actually have experienced them.
The current Japanese leadership hasn’t dared revise the treatment of Japan in school history textbooks. It stops at the end of World War II and says nothing at all about Japan’s post-war development. The Communist Party in China still celebrates the anniversaries related to Japan’s occupation with patriotic ceremonies on college campuses and wartime movies on theater and television screens.
Although President Hu Jintao has tightened press censorship and closed down the most virulent anti-Japanese websites, nowadays it is impossible for the Communist Party to block news about what is happening in Tokyo from reaching the Chinese public. How will Beijing react if Abe later does visit Yasukuni or takes other actions related to wartime history that are popular in Japan but outrage the Chinese public?
One should watch in the next few days to see how China’s own domestic media report inside China on Wen Jiabao’s visit to Japan. If the stories highlight Wen’s firm demand that the Japanese prime minister not visit Yasukuni or take actions related to historic events that “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people,” we’ll know that Hu and Wen still remain fearful of being condemned as soft on Japan by their domestic public.
Susan L. Shirk is a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of East Asia and Pacific Affairs. She currently serves as director of the Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation at the University of California - San Diego. Her most recent book “China: Fragile Superpower” was released this month. For more information, see her recent live Q&A session.
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