'Public opinion' and China's Japan policy

About the author
Li Datong is a Chinese journalist and former editor of Bingdian (Freezing Point), a weekly supplement of the China Youth Daily newspaper. In 2006 he was the recipient of a Lettre Ulysses award for reportage on his experience at Bingdian

2007 is a sensitive year in Sino-Japan relations - the seventieth anniversary of the outbreak of the second Sino-Japanese war (or the "war of resistance against Japan"). Long before Chinese premier Wen Jiabao made his visit to Japan in mid-April 2007, the Chinese propaganda authorities placed a gagging order on the news media, forbidding them from publishing any memorial pieces. They were anxious not to destroy the atmosphere that had allowed a thaw in relations between the two countries. Once again, historical events had become a diplomatic taboo. It seems that as it forms its foreign policy, the Chinese government cannot ignore "public opinion".

I put "public opinion" in inverted commas because, in fact, public opinion in the usual sense has never existed in China. Public opinion must be built on freedom of speech. Only if events are objectively and fully disclosed, and a wide variety of viewpoints fully debated, can public opinion be genuine. Only then will it be taken seriously by politicians, because it will influence or even decide whether they can be re-elected.

Also on China-Japan relations in openDemocracy:

Isabel Hilton, "China and Japan: a textbook argument"
(20 April 2005)

Andrew Joyce, "China and Japan: between past and future"
(10 April 2007)

Noriko Hama, "The China-Japan spring romance: thus far, how much farther?"
(17 April 2007)

The dilemmas of control

In light of the fact that freedom of speech does not exist in China, and that politicians are not constrained by having to be elected by the people, public opinion cannot be said to be genuine. Chinese leaders formulating foreign policy have often sought to appropriate and direct public opinion. From the founding of the People's Republic in 1949 to the cultural revolution of 1966-76, there were hundreds of thousands - perhaps even millions - of mass protests calling for the "repressed workers of the world" to "resist imperialism". These demonstrations were usually planned carefully, with the slogans prescribed by the authorities. In those days, when China was closed off, the public was insulated from genuine information about the outside world and believed exactly what the authorities said. "Public opinion" was nothing but a tool of the politicians.

Since the start of the open-door policy under Deng Xiaoping in 1978, and in particular with the rise of the internet, there has been a much greater flow of information into and around China. But in official media and the internet alike, there is still a serious lack of honest reporting on Japan. On the internet, rational voices on Sino-Japanese relations are branded traitors by the "angry youth". Even more surprising is that across China, university students have held anti-Japanese protests and demonstrations encouraging people to boycott Japanese goods, despite this being forbidden by the authorities.

The public opinion voiced by these demonstrations can be seen as both genuine and false.

It is genuine in that the demonstrations are not organised or supported by the government - they are spontaneous. Since the large-scale political and economic protests of 1989, the Chinese authorities have been extremely nervous about any demonstrations that they do not control (whatever the target), because they fear that any tiny spark could set off mass protests around the country.

But the public opinion is also false in that all the information provided to this generation of Chinese youth has been twisted. Since 1949, history classes in China have basically been lessons in a narrow kind of nationalism. Modern Chinese history, with all its complexity, has been reduced simply to "aggression" and "resistance to aggression", its characters either "patriots" or "traitors". The result of this brainwashing by the Chinese authorities is that today's generation of young Chinese people are totally ignorant of history.

The irony of all this is that the Chinese government is in fact extremely pragmatic in its foreign policy. China's current leaders are more aware than anyone of the importance of maintaining good relations with the United States and Japan. This is in China's long-term interest. Therefore, a conflict is starting to emerge between a pragmatic approach to foreign policy and an irrational approach to historical education. The government finds itself in a dilemma - one which is the result of its own policies.

Li Datong is a Chinese journalist and formerly editor of Bingdian (Freezing Point), a weekly supplement of the China Youth Daily newspaper

Also by Li Datong in openDemocracy:

"The story of Freezing Point"
(12 September 2006)

"China: a 'great nation'?"
(10 January 2007)

"China's contradictory signals"
(24 January 2007)

"Hong Kong's example"
(7 February 2007)

"Will China follow Vietnam's lead?"
(21 February 2007)

"Chinese political reform: official discourse, real meaning"
(7 March 2007)

"What China's new property law means"
(21 March 2007)

"The Chinese 'nail house': a Chongqing saga" (4 April 2007)

A dangerous path

"Public opinion" used to be a tool of foreign policy, so why has such a turnaround happened? There are two main reasons.

First, "patriotic education" was designed to increase the Chinese Communist Party (CCP's) legitimacy. Without doubt, resisting foreign invasion is a display of patriotism. In Chinese history textbooks, only the party is credited with having resisted Japan, with the nationalists (Guomindang, or Kuomintang) portrayed as "collaborators" or "sell-outs". Decades of propaganda have solidified the irrational anti-Japanese attitudes of the Chinese public. Anyone who dares to say anything positive about Japan is instantly termed a traitor or sell-out. Even the Chinese leaders themselves have come under this sort of attack from time to time on the internet. This public mood, which has been instilled widely and deeply by traditional education, could in certain circumstances become a powerful anti-government force.

Second, the CCP leaders do not actually care about historical issues. In meetings with Japanese politicians, Mao Zedong thanked them on three occasions for invading China on the grounds that without the Japanese invasion, the party would never have been able to seize power so quickly. Mao was not just joking - he was actually being realistic about history. If even Mao, who fought against the Japanese, had this attitude, then why would the current generation of leaders, who have never experienced war, place more emphasis on history? The answer is that the revolutionary Mao's absolute authority was never questioned, whereas the current technocrats and bureaucrats are afraid of being called sell-outs by the public. This is a latent threat to the party's legitimacy.

Diplomatic rationality suggests that events from sixty years ago should not be an obstacle to friendly relations between Japan and China, and the Chinese leadership does not want things to be contentious. But the seeds sown by traditional Chinese education have sprouted into irrational public emotions, forcing the government to take a tough stance with Japan in order to keep the people happy.

History has already shown that using narrow-minded nationalist education to reinforce the legitimacy of the regime is a dangerous path, and today the government in Beijing is caught between a rock and a hard place. The only answer is to allow freedom of speech, provide comprehensive and truthful information to the people, and encourage open debate on different ideas. This will mean the Chinese people will be able to decide the truth for themselves. Only then will there exist a genuine public opinion, and a positive interaction between public opinion and foreign policy.