[From the diaries – susanbhu]
(cross-posted at the Paper Tiger)

If you want to stir things up on a China-related blog, you can always count on these two topics to do the job: Taiwanese independence (or separatism, if you prefer) and anti-Japanese sentiment in China. The Taiwan issue is a well-known hot button. Anti-Japanese sentiment may not be as familiar to many Netizens, but I imagine yesterday’s demonstrations in Beijing caught the world’s attention.

Chinese protesters chanted slogans and burned Japanese flags on Saturday as more than 1,000 turned out in the capital to demand a boycott of Japanese goods over Tokyo’s refusal to admit to World War II atrocities. … More below

The demonstration in the Beijing neighborhood of Zhongguancun, known for its electronics shops and home to a large student population, comes less than a week after anti-Japanese protests in other Chinese cities turned violent…

…Many Chinese harbor deep resentment of Japan’s wartime aggression and its failure to own up to atrocities, feelings exacerbated by Tokyo’s approval on Tuesday of a school history textbook critics say whitewashes Japanese war crimes.

 “Across the country, the mood to refuse Japanese goods is high, but nothing has been done about this. Therefore, patriotic students have organized themselves,” said a notice circulated by e-mail on Friday.

 On Saturday, the mostly student protesters carried signboards with lists of Japanese brand names crossed out and chanted slogans outside an electronics plaza urging the boycott.

 Some wore red signs pasted to their chests bearing a traditional Chinese dragon and reading “Reject Japanese goods.” Others began kicking a Toyota car caught in the middle of the crowd before it managed to drive away.

 Police guarded the entrance to the electronics plaza to stop demonstrators from pushing inside, and at least 20 police vans stood by to prevent the protest from escalating…

…Last weekend protesters smashed windows at a Japanese supermarket in the southwestern city of Chengdu after a demonstration there against Japan’s bid for a permanent U.N. Security Council seat turned violent. Demonstrators also took to the streets in Guangzhou, Chongqing and the southern city of Shenzhen, where two Japanese department stores were vandalized.

 Domestic media said millions of Chinese had also signed an online petition opposing the bid for a seat.

Chinese grievances against Japan are of long standing, going back to the Chinese defeat in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95. Though China maintained paper title to her territory in Manchuria, the fading Imperial Government’s actual authority was nominal, and if anyone was actually running the place, it was Japan, which had caught a strong case of Manifest Destiny with regards to Manchuria. An example of this mentality: the problems in Manchuria, said one Japanese writer, were in fact not caused by Japanese actions but instead were the result of too much concern with Chinese demands.

By 1915, Japan was in the position to issue an ultimatum that the terms of its “21 Demands,” which in effect would give Japan complete control of Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, Shandong and other Chinese territories, be accepted by the nominally republican government of Yuan Shikai…or else.

Chinese resentment of Japan really hit the boiling point as a result of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, a treaty that was supposed to settle the scores of World War I.

Well, that didn’t work so well, as World War II went on to demonstrate. And many Chinese, whose democratic aspirations had been supported by American President Woodrow Wilson, felt betrayed by the outcome of the Versailles deal-making. But Japan had been on the side of the victorious Western allies, and though China could not be considered precisely a spoil of war, Japan was given title to what had previously been German concessions in Shandong Province. And Woodrow Wilson, in poor health, in the minority and fighting against the isolationist sentiments of his own countrymen, was unable or unwilling to back up his promises to China.

The grim news from Paris reached Beijing before the actual signing of the Treaty.  The Chinese delegation, not willing to end up the scapegoat in the “Who Lost Shandong?” debate, revealed that the secret treaties and machinations between the Great Powers, Japan and the Chinese government (the warlord regime in China was far from blameless here) had fatally undercut China’s negotiating position.  By May 1, their report was made public, published in the “Peking Daily.”  Beijing student organizations had already resolved to hold a massive demonstration on May 7, to commemorate National Humiliation Day (established after the forced acceptance of Japan’s 21 Demands, certainly one of my favorite holiday concepts ever, and one that cries out for wider implementation, though I’d tweak it to reflect things we are ashamed of). With this news, the emotional fever pitch rose a few more notches.  At one meeting a student “bit his index finger; and on a white banner he wrote in blood the words, ‘Return Our Qingdao” (Shandong Province’s capital, home to Qingdao Beer, which was set up by the Germans – one of imperialism’s better side-effects). Another student tearfully threatened suicide if the meeting did not end with the resolution to march.

For all of the seeming emotionalism, however, the students were well-organized, the demonstration carefully planned.  According to John Dewey, who had coincidentally arrived in China on May 1, the student groups were co-ordinated enough move their demonstration back three days from the original schedule of May 7;  a political party had plans to demonstrate on that day, Dewey reported, and the students “were afraid their movement, coming at the same time, would make it look as if they were an agency of the political faction, and they wanted to act independently as students.  To think of kids in our country from fourteen on, taking the lead in starting a big cleanup reform politics movement and shaming merchants and professional men into joining them.  This is sure some country.”

On May 4th, in the early afternoon, some 3000 students representing thirteen Beijing colleges and universities gathered in Tiananmen Square to begin the demonstration.   They shouted slogans and handed out manifestos to the sympathetic crowd and began their march toward the Legation Quarter.  The ambassadors they wished to petition were not in residence, and the Legation police refused them permission to march through the Quarter.  The demonstrators turned instead toward the house of Cao Rulin, the much hated pro-Japanese Minister of Communications.  This action was probably not spontaneous.  Apparently several secret student societies, mostly anarchist, had planned to use the demonstration to make a violent statement, and Cao Rulin was a favored target.

When Cao would not show himself, a student smashed a window and climbed inside to open the gate and let the protestors in.  Cao had already departed, in disguise, through another window into an automobile waiting in the alley below.  In frustration, the students smashed up Cao’s furniture, and someone, an anarchist named Kuang Husheng in some sources, lit the house on fire. Chang Cungxiang, the Minister to Japan, was in the house, however, in a meeting with another official and a Japanese journalist.  The unlucky Chang was severely beaten.  The police, up to this point reluctant to interfere with the demonstration, were ordered to act aggressively and moved in swinging batons, firing shots and making arrests.  One student died later in a French hospital.

(much of this material can be found in Chow Tse-tsung’s classic study, “The May Fourth Movement”)

It’s often said that the current Chinese government has encouraged nationalism as a substitute for Communist faith, which was fatally undermined by the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. To some extent, anti-Japanese sentiment can be seen as a safety valve for other resentments and frustrations that the CCP is unwilling or unable to remedy. And certainly there seems to be an element of emotional displacement if you consider the make-up of most of the anti-Japanese protesters. After all, the atrocities committed by Japan against China took place during the Second World War – or, as they refer to it in China, the “Anti-Japanese War.” Japan’s crimes against the Chinese people during that time are well-documented, though unfortunately not as well-publicized as Germany’s Holocaust against the Jews. Read Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking if you want to understand the scope and depravity of Japan’s crimes against China.

But certainly few of the protesters in Beijing have had any direct experience with those times. They object to Japan’s unwillingness to directly and sincerely apologize, to the whitewashing and rationalization of Japan’s wartime actions in Japanese textbooks, to the continued visits by Japanese prime ministers to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which commemorates Japan’s war dead but includes over a dozen Class A war criminals and has become a focal point for Japan’s militant nationlists. But still…

Much anti-Japanese sentiment exists on the Chinese internet. Many of the most virulent hate-mongers, and make no mistake, some of these people fall into that category, are educated, relatively affluent young professionals. You can read a good article about such people here.

It’s one thing to want to redress historical injustices. It’s another thing to dedicate one’s life to hating an entire nation for what their fathers and grandfathers did more than a half-century ago.

As my boss once said to me, it’s never about what it’s about.

The China of May 1919 was ostensibly a republic, the result of an inept revolution that hardly had to work to topple the moribund Qing Dynasty. The reality was that the so-called Republic was a collection of warlords who fought and dealed and took bribes    and assassinated their rivals and generally did whatever the limits of their power allowed them to do.

As for the anti-Japanese protests of May 4th, 1919, they provided the name for a movement that is considered a turning point in Chinese history. Chinese Communists claim it for their own, the beginning of a historical current that culminated in the establishment of the Peoples’ Republic of China in 1949. Others consider the May 4th Movement the first real criticism of traditional Chinese – read “Confucian” – thought, an attempt to synthesize the best of Western philosphy and science in the service of creating a strong, modern China.

So what might the anti-Japanese protests of April 9th, 2005 signify?

As Zhou Enlai once said, when asked for his opinion of the French Revolution, “It’s too soon to say.”

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