Thousands of Chinese took to the streets of Shanghai, Tianjin, Hangzhou, and other major cities on 16 and 17 April, throwing rocks and bottles at Japanese businesses and pelting (eds: throwing) the Japanese consulate with paint bombs.
The protestors are incensed over the Japanese government’s approval of a new history textbook. They say the book fails to acknowledge the atrocities committed by Japanese forces in China in the 1930s and 1940s.
They say it is symptomatic of Japan’s failure to face up to its past -- a point repeated today by Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Wu Dawei. Wu said relations with Japan are now at their worst since Tokyo and Beijing reestablished diplomatic ties 33 years ago.
"Right now, Chinese-Japanese relations are in serious difficulties. This is the most serious phase in relations since 1972. The problem has been lingering for a long time. The Japanese government is unable to face and deal squarely with history. The issue of history refers to the invasion of China by Japanese militarists," said Wu.
China says the textbook incident is proof that Japan should not obtain a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, as it has been seeking. Beijing is also upset over Japan’s common approach with the United States over Taiwan. All of these issues are now weighing on the two countries’ ties.
Japan says it has already issued several apologies for its wartime actions and it notes Chinese textbooks are themselves not an example of balance, making no mention of the millions of people who perished under Communist repression.
Yesterday, Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura flew to Beijing, hoping to calm the row. But his visit did little to smooth relations.
Tokyo stuck to its insistence that Beijing apologize over the violent demonstrations and Beijing said it has nothing to apologize for.
Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing said yesterday that "the Chinese government has never done anything for which it has had to apologize to the Japanese people. The main problem now is that the Japanese government has done a series of things that have hurt the feelings of the Chinese people on the Taiwan issue, some international issues, including human rights, and especially in its treatment of history."
China experts like Rana Mitter at Oxford University say there is no doubt that the textbook controversy has touched a raw nerve in China. However, Mitter adds that the crisis suits the Chinese government’s interests.
If Beijing succeeds in preventing Japan from getting onto the Security Council and if it can get Japan to stop commenting on Taiwan, it will have won a diplomatic victory. But over the long term, Mitter believes Beijing will seek to calm the diplomatic waters -- for economic and political reasons:
"In the longer term, I think it’s undoubtedly in China’s interest to make sure that the relationship improves. Clearly, China’s economic growth, which continues still to be very spectacular, is also quite fragile and vulnerable in various ways. And international stability, just as much as domestic instability, could be a very damaging thing for the development of that growth. So to that extent, while the immediate crisis clearly has sent Sino-Japanese relations to a relatively low point, I think that outside the rhetoric, the Chinese government will actually be trying to backpedal (eds. to retreat from a position) a bit and try probably to prevent any more very major public demonstrations of anti-Japanese feeling appearing on the streets, while at the same time talking tough in international forums," says Mitter.
Mitter notes that controversy over Japan’s wartime history and how the subject is taught in Japanese textbooks goes back at least 20 years. During that time, there have been several similar protests from the Chinese side but eventually, disagreements were swept under the carpet. He expects that will happen again:
"In the past, the way in which this has been done is that various financial incentives have been given by the Japanese to the Chinese and the Chinese have simply toned down the rhetoric. Since the control of public debate and public discourse in China is obviously much more state-controlled than it is in Japan, there is more opportunity for the Chinese simply to decide at some point in the near future that they will no longer allow newspapers to publish articles about this issue or will use security police to make sure that demonstrations simply don’t gather. The fact, for instance, that a planned public demonstration in Tiananmen Square last weekend against the Japanese did not take place, suggests that the Chinese authorities are beginning probably to become rather worried about what kind of feelings they’ve unleashed," says Mitter.
If the row is not brought under control, regional international trade could be disrupted. And ongoing six-party talks about North Korea’s nuclear program could also be delayed, at the very least.