China: Beijing tries to cool anti-Japan protests

The protests by students and young people in China, and similar protests in South Korea, against Japan’s resurgent militarism, are causing growing apprehension among world political leaders, businessmen and now, it seems, the Chinese regime itself.

China is Japan’s biggest trading partner, accounting for 20.1% of its trade in 2004. Major Japanese firms such as Toyota are investing heavily in China while big Chinese firms such as the Shanghai Electric Group are pushing into the Japanese market. Capitalists in both of Asia’s two largest economies fear the start of a new “cold war” that could affect trade and investments and inflict huge collateral damage on both sides. Even US-Australian media mogul, Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corp has big investments in China, warned that the anti-Japanese protests in China could threaten the world economy. “If they can’t get their genie back in the bottle, it’s going to be very difficult,” he said.

Business comes first

Professor Christopher Pokarier, an economist at Waseda University warns, “While it is always difficult to put a firm figure on the economic cost of worsening Sino-Japanese relations, politics can and does impact on business.” China’s 1996 conflict with Taiwan, when the Clinton Administration dispatched two aircraft carrier groups to the Taiwan Strait cost the Chinese economy an estimated $20bn in lost investment and trade. The potential losses could be even greater this time around, for both Japan and China. While the CCP [Chinese Communist Party – sic] regime uses nationalism and great-power ambitions as a weapon, having abandoned Stalinism, it tries to insure that its periodic nationalist outpourings do not interfere with its economic interests. There is nothing it fears more that an economic slowdown that could tip the country’s precarious social situation over the edge into a nationwide revolt of workers and peasants.

Over the last three weeks anti-Japanese demonstrations have been staged in a number of Chinese cities, including Beijing, Changsha, Chengdu, Chongqing, Luoyang, Guangzhou, Guilin, Shanghai, Shenyang, Shenzhen and Xiamen. Protests have also taken place in Hong Kong and Seoul (South Korea). Particularly the 20,000-strong protest last weekend in Shanghai, China’s economic powerhouse and home to 40,000 Japanese expatriates, which resulted in considerable damage to “Japanese” shops and cars (mostly owned by Chinese) has set alarm bells ringing.

Koizumi: “Most nationalist prime minister”

At the centre of the protests – the first coordinated nationwide protests in China since the mass pro-democracy demonstrations of 1989 – is the planned rearmament of Japanese capitalism under Washington’s prompting. The Bush administration wants Tokyo to beef-up its military forces and shoulder a bigger share of the burden of policing East Asia for US imperialism. Utilising a number of perceived threats including the North Korean regime’s nuclear weapons programme and China’s rapid military upgrade, Japan’s Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi advocates a break with the country’s post-war “pacifist” stance towards foreign relations.

“Koizumi is the most nationalist prime minister since the end of the war. His insensitive behaviour has offended millions of Asians and is largely responsible for our current difficulties with China,” Ryoji Yamauchi, president of Asahikawa University told Asia Times.

Under Koizumi, Japan has sent “non-combat” troops to Iraq and joined the US-led Proliferation Security Initiative, which permits naval interceptions of vessels suspected of carrying illicit cargoes of arms or drugs. Japan is acquiring a US-made ballistic missile defence system and new satellite intelligence capabilities. There is even a debate in Japan about pre-emptive strikes against North Korea and a Japanese nuclear deterrent, an issue that raises strong emotions in the only country ever to be hit by a nuclear attack.

Meanwhile tighter cooperation with US imperialism’s post 9/11 military overhaul is proceeding apace. Last week Tokyo agreed to allow the command headquarters of the US Army’s 1st Corps to transfer from the US Pacific coast, to Camp Zama, south of Tokyo. As The Guardian (London) points out, the primary focus of the 1st Corps “is likely to be the defence of Taiwan, regional challenges posed by China’s military expansion, and the nuclear standoff with North Korea.”

“The ramifications of this would be that Japan would essentially serve as a frontline US command post for the Asia-Pacific and beyond,” the International Institute for Strategic Studies reported recently. These military realignments are behind Japan’s US-backed drive for a permanent UN Security Council seat.

Peaceful rise?

Beijing naturally sees the dangers – to its own rising power and ambitions to economically dominate the East Asia region – implicit in these moves. The mantra of the CCP regime under its fourth-generation leaders like president Hu Jintao, is the “peaceful rise” of China, the projection of so-called “soft power” i.e. using trade, investment opportunities and diplomatic ties rather than military muscle to secure a predominant role in the region. Until recently, with “China fever” sweeping most of the capitalist world, this strategy has enjoyed considerable success. But despite repeated assurances (most recently during Premier Wen Jiabao’s trip to India) that China “is not a threat to its neighbours,” the logic of China’s capitalist development is a new and intensified struggle for markets, raw materials, and prestige – a precious commodity for any ruling class wishing to beat-off challengers. The Chinese military is upgrading its technology, with a drive to create a “blue sea navy,” capable of patrolling more than just China’s coastal waters. The recent reshuffle of the CCP’s Central Military Commission (CMC) – the country’s highest military body – saw the chiefs-of-staff of the air force and navy brought on for the first time. The regime’s diplomatic blunder of passing an “anti-secession law” aimed against Taiwan on 14 March has played into the hands of Tokyo and Washington and sceptics of the “peaceful rise” scenario.

This explains the CCP regime’s stance on the anti-Japan protests, which undoubtedly, at least in the early stages were officially sanctioned.

Beijing losing control?

There were reports from Beijing that universities and schools encouraged students to attend the demonstrations. One student told the New York Times (16 April 2005) that Beijing police, “herded protesters into tight groups, let them take turns throwing rocks, then told them they had ’vented their anger’ long enough and bussed them back to campus.”

But if at the outset the protesters resembled extras in a CCP produced propaganda film, there are signs that this may be changing, that the demonstrations may be taking on a life of their own. Prior to the Shanghai protests, the city’s police sent SMS messages to 15 million mobile phone users saying: “Express warm patriotic sentiments through proper channels. Obey the law. Maintain order.” [Associated Press 16 April].Clearly, this is not what happened.

There are growing signs that CCP leaders fear they may lose control of the protests, through which in addition to pressurising Tokyo they have sought to divert attention from the rising tide of social unrest at home. During the last two weeks there have been violent clashes between police and anti-pollution campaigners in Zhejiang province and protests in central Beijing by more than one thousand retired soldiers demanding higher pensions. The regime is now moving to restrict the anti-Japan demonstrations, imposing a media ban on reporting disturbances and temporarily closing some universities.

”Stay off the streets”

Yesterday (19 April) China’s foreign minister called for an end to the protests. The minister, Li Zhaoxing, speaking on national television said that government, military and party officials, as well as “the masses,” should stay off the streets. “Calmly, rationally, and legally express your own views. Do not attend marches that have not been approved. Do not do anything that might upset social stability,” he was quoted as saying. These comments also indicate a split within the vast CCP apparatus, with Beijing not necessarily able to control all its local appendages. Nationalism runs especially high within the armed forces, having been partly whipped up to justify an ever-bigger arms budget. The Asia Times points out that Li’s appeal “most likely reflects the views of top leaders that there is now little to be gained from further protests but rather some risk to social stability if they continue unchecked.”

But as they also note, “It is unclear how anti-Japanese sentiment can be effectively contained now that it has been so passionately ignited. The most recent demonstration in Shanghai, Shenzhen and other cities clearly indicate that anti-Japanese feelings are spreading and protesters are prepared to defy bans on demonstrations.”[Asia Times, 19 April]

The attempt to rein in the protests will face a crucial test next week. City residents have been sending text messages and e-mails calling for major demonstrations on May 1 and on May 4.

The latter date is a particularly poignant date in Chinese history – the anniversary of mass student-led anti-imperialist protests in 1919. Popular outrage was ignited by the terms of the Versailles Treaty, following World War I, which handed German-controlled territory in China to Japan.

Pressure mounts on both sides

To date the anti-Japan protests have posed no direct threat to the CCP regime. The mood among students and much of the urban middle class is nationalistic, but also largely pro-regime and supportive of the CCP’s great power ambitions. They do not challenge the capitalist restructuring of the Chinese economy with its attendant job losses and slashing of Stalinist-era welfare benefits.

This anti-Japan movement is nevertheless politically heterogeneous and the regime fears may fuse with, or provide a cover for, social protests involving groups who have lost out from China’s return to a state-guided form of capitalism.

For this reason, as well as the fear of an investor backlash led by Japanese companies, an attempt by Beijing to defuse the current conflict is likely, perhaps at the coming weekend’s Asia-Africa conclave in Jakarta, where Hu may meet with Koizumi. The Japanese leader is also coming under pressure not to escalate the situation.

An opinion poll in Japan’s Mainichi Shimbun newspaper on Saturday and Sunday showed that 76% believed Koizumi had not done enough to mend ties with Japan’s neighbours, China and South Korea. In the background, extreme right-wing groups are trying to cash in on the conflict by targeting Chinese agencies for revenge attacks. In Tokyo, shots were fired at a Chinese language school, hitting a door but causing no injuries. A razor blade in an anonymous letter was delivered to the Chinese consulate in Fukuoka last week. But a Beijing-based Japanese executive told Asia Times: “I blame this situation solely on Koizumi. We should apologize more to China. It just doesn’t make sense to unnecessarily upset China. Koizumi should stop his [Yasukuni] shrine visits. It is hurting our investments and threatening the lives of the Japanese people working in China.”

Socialist solution needed

Reflecting this pressure, Koizumi has indicated he will not reiterate the call for an apology at the hoped-for meeting with Hu in Indonesia. The Chinese regime for its part has not said categorically it will veto permanent membership of UN Security Council for Japan. As part of a wider reshuffle, with countries like India, Brazil and Germany also being elevated, China may consent, using what will inevitably be a protracted period of negotiations to extract economic and other concessions from Tokyo.

A possible thaw in relations may therefore be in the offing. But the situation is still fraught with difficulties underlining the impossibility of peace and genuine regional cooperation on a capitalist basis. Only the working class in China, Japan and the wider region can offer a permanent way out of the crisis by linking up to sweep aside the nationalist politicians, militarists and fake “communist” dictators whose continued rule is a guarantee of new shocks and upheavals.


Japan’s wartime atrocities

The latest spark which may inflame further anti-Japan protests in Asia is the decision by a Tokyo court on 19 April to reject an appeal from ten survivors of the 1931-45 occupation of China asking the Japanese government to apologize and pay compensation for its wartime crimes, including the Nanjing Massacre and lethal experiments performed on the Chinese by the infamous Unit 731.

The decision two weeks ago to approve revisionist history textbooks which blot out the Nanjing Massacre and the kidnapping of tens of thousands of Korean women for use as sex-slaves of the imperial army, has focussed attention once again on Japan’s militarist past.

The Rape of Nanjing in 1937 when Japanese troops entered the former KMT capital of China and massacred an estimated 350,000 Chinese troops and civilians – a bigger death toll even than the horrific atom bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – represents one of the darkest chapters of Japan’s military expansion in East Asia. Following Japan’s defeat, US imperialism ruled the country as a “protectorate” for seven years (1945-52), drafting the “pacifist” constitution that politicians in Tokyo and Washington now want to revise. The cynical great-power interests of US policy towards Japan in immediate post-war period explain many of today’s grievances in the rest of Asia.

US cover-up

The US stage-managed the war crimes’ tribunals in Japan in the late 1940s to protect the chief criminal, Emperor Hirohito, who unlike Saddam Hussein or Hitler stayed on the throne and lived to a ripe old age (he died in 1989). This was because Washington was afraid of revolution in Asia, the strengthened position of the Stalinist parties in China (i.e. Mao’s Red Army), Indochina (Ho Chi Minh) and Japan itself, and leaned on the old militarist bureaucracy in order to rebuild Japanese capitalism as a “bulwark against communism”.

Of the two dozen or so judges called to sit in judgement on Japan’s wartime leaders, only three were from Asia, where most victims of the Japanese military regime’s aggression were to be found. US allies at this time – Britain, France and Holland – were busy reinvading the countries Japan had recently been forced to vacate. Even the use of atomic weapons against Japan reflected US imperialism’s strategic interests rather than military necessity. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were intended as a warning to Stalin’s Soviet Union not to challenge US interests in Korea and China for example, as well as avoiding potential losses of US ground troops in a military invasion of Japanese home islands.

The terror war of the Japanese armies in China, where at least 20 million people are believed to have died, was a major factor behind Mao’s victory over the ineffectual and corrupt KMT armies of Chiang Kai-shek. Again, showing US imperialism’s hypocrisy, the Japanese scientists employed at Unit 731 in Manchuria, where chemical weapons were developed and used against an estimated 250,000 Chinese, were given an amnesty after the war in return for passing on their secrets to the US military. Fifty years later a US president would go to war ostensibly to rid the world of “weapons of mass destruction”.

20 April 2005,

Special financial appeal to all readers of

Support building alternative socialist media provides a unique analysis and perspective of world events. also plays a crucial role in building the struggle for socialism across all continents. Capitalism has failed! Assist us to build the fight-back and prepare for the stormy period of class struggles ahead.
Please make a donation to help us reach more readers and to widen our socialist campaigning work across the world.

Donate via Paypal

Liked this article? We need your support to improve our work. Please become a Patron! and support our work
Become a patron at Patreon!

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


April 2005