Angry anti-Japan protests erupted in several Chinese cities at the weekend, with a crowd of 6,000 mostly students and youth marching on the Japanese Embassy in Beijing, while 3,000 demonstrated outside Japan’s consulate in the southern city of Guangzhou.
The crowd outside the Beijing Embassy threw stones, bottles and eggs and chanted, “Support the Chinese motherland, boycott Japanese goods!”
In some cases, protesters have attacked Japanese businesses, advertising and even cars.
The background to these events, potentially the most serious standoff between the two countries since the end of World War II, is the growing inter-imperialist tensions on a world scale, not least in Asia. China’s surging economy is not just a market for Japanese goods, but also a potentially powerful rival to Japan’s dominant role in East Asia. China’s growing need to secure oil and natural gas supplies, which has revived unsettled territorial disputes in the East China Sea, and its opposition to Japanese capitalism’s planned military build-up, actively sponsored by the Bush administration, are all ingredients in the conflict.
This is despite the fact that last year, for the first time, China became Japan’s largest trade partner and consumed $112.6 billion worth of Japanese exports, an increase of 17 per cent on the year before. The protests also show – contrary to the image portrayed in the capitalist press – how unstable the situation inside China is. Undoubtedly the CCP regime has seized upon this issue to provide a “safety vent” for the social discontent accumulating as a result of huge social inequality and rapacious capitalist exploitation.
The decision by Japan’s government to approve a “revisionist” history textbook that, for example, avoids use of the word “invasion” in recounting the events of the 1930s and 40s, has become a key issue in the protests. The right-wing authors say they are fed up with “masochistic” accounts of Japan’s imperial past. Under the Japanese occupation of 1931-45 at least 15 million Chinese perished. In the two Koreas, which were colonised by Japan from 1911-45, the textbook account has also triggered angry protests. This follows on the heels of Japan’s bid to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council, as part of Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s extreme makeover of that body. An officially blessed cyber-petition protesting against the proposal has so far collected 30 million signatures in China.
Under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, the nationalist right in Japan have become more strident. Koizumi who has used nationalist rhetoric to overcome opposition within his own Liberal Democratic Party to his neo-liberal agenda of budget cuts and privatisation, speaks about Japan becoming a “normal country” i.e. enjoying the same rights to build up and project its military power overseas as other imperialist states. His visits – four to date – to the Yasukuni war shrine where 14 war criminals are buried, have been applauded by the extreme right while arousing protests at home and abroad. Koizumi has said that the “peace paragraph” of the Japan’s constitution, adopted after its defeat in World War II, which among other things bans the use of military force to settle disputes, will be revoked in the next five years. He has had to move stealthily because of traditionally strong public opposition, based on the disastrous experience of Japanese militarism in the 1930s and 40s. Already an important taboo has been broken with the deployment in “non-military operations” of Japanese troops in East Timor, Aceh and – at the behest of the US – in Iraq.
The Bush administration, for its part, is strengthening its traditional military alliance with Japan to counter China’s growing economic and diplomatic clout.
Bush’s Asian poodle
“The United States wants Japan to assume a role very much like the one it has vis-a-vis the British,” argues Tetsuo Maeda, of Tokyo International University. In other words, Bush wants an Asian poodle as a complement to Tony Blair. In February, for the first time ever, a joint US-Japanese statement cited Taiwan as an issue of “common security concern”, inevitably provoking a reaction from Beijing, which regards Taiwan as part of its historical territory. The push by Washington and Tokyo for a Japanese permanent Security Council seat (and therefore a veto) is intended to provide an official sanction for this process – the re-militarisation of Japan. Socialists oppose this, not just as far as Japan is concerned, but the whole sickening arms race which is underway as rival imperialist powers attempt to assert themselves. A similar process is underway in Europe with the development of the EU’s military capability and attempts to forge a common foreign policy. At the same time, the warmongering politicians insist there is no money for health services, schools and pensions.
The Chinese regime’s stand on the current anti-Japan protests has nothing in common with the fears of ordinary workers and youth about the incipient arms race and risk of military conflict. As Yang Wei-chung of the Workers’ Democracy Association, a marxist organisation in Taiwan, explained to chinaworker, “The CCP regime rules on behalf of the bureaucrat-capitalist class, an autocratic regime. They have opened the country up to foreign capital and suppress the struggle of workers and farmers, and suppress democratic rights. In no way can the anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist struggle rely on the CCP.”
The Chinese regime, in pursuit of cordial relations with Bush, did not use its veto in the UN to stop the war in Iraq. Nor are its threats to use force against Taiwan particularly pacifistic. This year, China increased its arms budget by $30bn. This is 83 times the amount it intends to spend on improving the appalling safety standards in its coal industry ($362 million) which claimed 6,000 workers’ lives last year alone.
The Chinese authorities, while claiming the demonstrations are “spontaneous”, have shown far greater leniency than when workers or peasants demonstrate against job losses, unpaid wages or land eviction. On Monday 11 April, while anti-Japanese protests raged elsewhere, thousands of peasants fought with police to try to close several polluting chemical plants at an industrial park near Dongyang city in Zhejiang province. Two women demonstrators were killed, according to Reuters, and over 70 policemen were hospitalised, five in critical condition.
Not surprisingly, the Chinese regime has seized upon anti-Japanese sentiment as a welcome diversion from problems closer to home. It hopes to exploit the protests as a warning to Tokyo – and indirectly to the Bush administration – to think again. In this, it can count on mobilising regional support for its stand, for example in South Korea, where president Roh Moo-hyun’s poll ratings have soared by more then ten percentage points since he took up the cudgels against Japan. For China, this is also a warning to Japan to stay out of the Taiwan issue. The CCP regime believes it can control the protests, turning off the tap when it needs to. Significantly, in Shanghai which is the main centre for Japanese investment in China with over 20,000 Japanese in residence, police have taken a much tougher stand refusing to allow any protests lest they trigger an investment backlash.
But the situation is fraught with dangers. Right-wing politicians like Shintaro Ishihara, the governor of Tokyo, and other Japanese nationalists will undoubtedly try to exploit the Chinese protests, leading to a hardening of attitudes in Japan. Another problem is that the Beijing regime may not be able to fully control the protesters, who were urged to stay “calm and sane” by Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang. As one commentator in Beijing warned, “If this happens in too many locations simultaneously you have the potential for a national wave of protests that could easily spill over into other issues.”
International struggle against capitalism
Some of the China’s youthful demonstrators drew parallels between the current campaign and the May 4th movement of 1919, which began with protests against Japan and other foreign powers. “This is our May 4th movement,” one Beijing student told the New York Times, “We demand that Japan recognize its crimes.”
But May 4th took place against the background of the October 1917 Russian Revolution, and rapidly developed in an anti-imperialist direction. Several of the leaders of that movement became founding members of the Chinese Communist Party two years later. The situation today, unfortunately, is very different both in terms of the general throwing back of consciousness among workers and youth, and particularly the absence at this stage of a mass socialist alternative.
The consciousness of the demonstrators is evidently very contradictory. While the fears of a Japanese military build-up and outrage over the textbooks are entirely understandable, the slogans and demands of the demonstrations have so far been channelled in a nationalist, chauvinist direction. Protesters reportedly beat up two Japanese students in Guangzhou.
Given the complete absence of workers’ organisations in China today, the protests are dominated by middle class youth who don’t voice any criticism of the CCP regime or its pro-capitalist agenda. AP quoted a 22 year-old chemist saying, “China’s economy needs to grow even bigger so Japan won’t be able to push us around ever again.”
Capitalist organisations are active in the protests, including a trade association for Chinese chain stores that called for a boycott of Japanese beer, coffee and other products – in no way influenced by their desire for bigger profits!
As Yang Wei-chung points out, “Some demands of the movement are correct, against Japan becoming a permanent member of the Security Council, for example, but we cannot support the prejudiced nationalist slogans. Right-wing nationalism is always against foreign capital but not against Chinese capital, not anti-capitalist. They don’t oppose Chinese capital expanding abroad and exploiting at home. This is not the way of labour. We need to revive the way of internationalism from China, Japan to Taiwan, which must be based on the working class.”