Publication: China Brief Volume: 5 Issue: 9

It is not surprising that President Hu Jintao and his colleagues decided in mid-April to cool down anti-Japanese protests: a body blow has been dealt to China’s reputation as a responsible member of the global community. The fact that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) administration was close to losing control over xenophobic crowds has again alerted Beijing to the reality that nationalism is a double-edged sword. There are also signs that CCP factions not allied with Hu and his sidekick, Premier Wen Jiabao, have used the worsening crisis with Japan to fault the way that the Hu-Wen team has conducted its foreign policy.

A simple cost-benefit analysis would seem to suggest that Beijing has lost more than it gained in this confrontation with Japan – the worst in recent memory. The unexpectedly vehement outpouring of anti-Japan sentiments – apparently based on Tokyo’s refusal to face up to history – has produced some results with which Beijing would be happy. For example, together with similar (though less disorderly) outbursts in South Korea, the protests have seriously hurt Tokyo’s chances of securing permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council (PMUNSC). Also, the three weeks of often violent demonstrations have probably persuaded Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to postpone – at least until next year – his much-criticized visit to the Yasukuni Shrine. And Tokyo has felt obligated to suggest the formation of a Japanese-Chinese joint committee on the publication of historical textbooks.

Much as Beijing might have wanted to teach Tokyo a lesson and to prevent Japan’s gaining a PMUNSC – which will give a big boost to Koizumi’s bid to turn Japan into a “normal country” that has “normal” defense forces – it had not been the original intention of the Hu-Wen leadership to plunge Sino-Japan relations into such a new low. After all, at the end of the National People’s Congress (NPC) last month, Wen had floated an olive branch to Tokyo by noting for the first time since Koizumi started visiting the Yasukuni Shrine in 2001 that both sides should “enthusiastically create conditions” for high-level exchanges. Moreover, Beijing has indicated that anti-Japanese protests – both at the official and popular level – are only aimed at “a minority of right-wing militarists.” The blanket coverage of the past fortnight’s events in the Japanese media, however, ensured that Beijing has alienated pretty much all sectors of Japanese society. The latter include business corporations whose investment and technology Beijing still desires despite the huge strides that China has made in attracting American and European capital and know-how.

The international fallout of the often irrational protests could hurt China’s core interests even more. Most Western countries have blamed Beijing for “instigating” – or at least failing to control – the anti-Japanese demonstrations. The CCP leadership’s apparent mishandling of the crisis could produce a similar impact as did the ill-timed passage of the Anti-Secession Law (ASL) at this past NPC. The ASL was in large part responsible for the European Union’s recent decision not to lift the arms export ban on China. Now a new weapon has been handed to Tokyo, Washington and Taipei in their efforts to lobby the EU to maintain the embargo. On a broader scale, the flare-up of xenophobia on the streets in Shanghai and Shenzhen could make it easier for Beijing’s foes to blow up the “China Threat” theory. If ordinary Chinese can so readily succumb to anti-foreign hysteria, there may be an even greater reason for China’s neighbors to fear the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). PLA generals are known for their hawkish views against Japan and the U.S. The fast-expanding PLA prowess could be doubly dangerous should the CCP leadership bow to the dictates of nationalism – as well as the hard-line advice of PLA officers – and decide to use military means to “punish” a certain enemy country.

Then there is the equally adverse side-effect on China’s reputation as the “world factory” and top-notch haven for foreign direct investment (FDI). Most executives of U.S. multinationals have not forgotten the fact that there were attacks on China-based American commercial outlets – as well as calls to boycott American goods – in the wake of the destruction of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia in May 1999 as well as the April 2001 “spy plane incident.” If the Hu-Wen administration had let the anti-Japanese protests escalate, the current crisis could produce as detrimental an impact on China’s economy as the SARS episode of 2003.

There are, however, equally significant internal reasons why President Hu, who took over the all-powerful CCP Leading Group on Foreign Affairs (LGFA) in early 2003, should have decided to halt the rallies. A Beijing source close to the security establishment said the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) had held a lengthy meeting to discuss the emergency situation prior to the Public Security Ministry’s announcement on the 15th that the protests must be conducted in an “orderly and rational” manner. This message from the police was the first sign that the CCP leadership had decided to douse the flames of nationalism. The source said that while police and Ministry of State Security agents had closely monitored the activities of various “anti-Japanese” NGOs – which were responsible for organizing protests and internet petitions – Beijing had far from adequate control over the extent to which such “people-level” organizations would go. Citing Beijing’s largely successful efforts to stop the anti-U.S. protests a few days after the embassy-bombing incident in May 1999, the source said: “Hu and a number of his PSC colleagues have come to the conclusion that the authorities’ ability to control nationalistic outbursts has declined markedly compared to the 1999 episode.”

Diplomatic analysts in the Chinese capital said Beijing was nervous over the fact that, owing to the internet and other sophisticated forms of organization and mobilization, several relatively new and inexperienced groups were so successful in turning out the crowds. The analysts said many protests in recent Chinese history – stretching from the May 4, 1919 rally by Peking University students to the 1989 pro-democracy movement – started out as expressions of patriotism. Once the genie is out of the bottle, however, it would be difficult even for the CCP to prevent mass movements from suddenly becoming anti-government in nature. It is significant that while visiting Brunei last week, Hu told Chinese embassy officials and other guests that “we must remember that without social stability [in China], nothing can be accomplished.”

The slugfest with Japan has proven particularly embarrassing for the Hu-Wen team because the two Fourth-Generation leaders may face criticism from other Politburo members and PLA officers who are still loyal to former president Jiang Zemin and his Shanghai Faction. Political circles in Beijing are abuzz with stories that Jiang – who led Chinese diplomacy for roughly a decade – had recently made unflattering remarks about Hu’s performance. Jiang’s criticism, made in private, was that since Hu took over the foreign-policy portfolio, ties had deteriorated with the U.S. and Japan, while the situation over the Taiwan Strait remained as tense as ever. It is true that Jiang gave Hu credit for China’s much-improved relations with the EU, Russia, India, Vietnam and other ASEAN members. However, particularly in view of America’s fast-expanding foothold in Central Asian states such as Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, China has become more vulnerable to Washington’s “anti-China containment policy.” By contrast, Jiang claimed that Sino-U.S. relations – still the bedrock of China’s foreign policy – were better when he himself was at the LGFA’s helm.

Chinese officials as well as the media had made some fence-mending efforts prior to the meeting last weekend between Hu and Koizumi on the sidelines of the Asia-Africa Forum in Jakarta. For example, State Councillor Tang Jiaxuan floated the idea of “setting aside disputes [and working toward] joint exploitation” to resolve bilateral wrangling over ownership rights to oil and gas under the East China Sea. And CCTV and other major Chinese media have run special programs on the symbiotic nature of Sino-Japan economic ties.

It is unlikely, however, that Beijing’s fundamental policies toward Japan will change in the foreseeable future. The CCP leadership will continue to recognize Japan’s status as a quasi-economic superpower and undertake tremendous effort to boost trade and other forms of economic cooperation. Politically, however, the Hu-Wen leadership is committed to preventing Japan from becoming a “normal country.” This means, among other things, that Tokyo must not expand its self-defense forces into a regular army. And Beijing is dead-set against Tokyo gaining PMUNSC, which will be a benchmark of Japan’s expanding global clout.

In Beijing’s eyes, a breakthrough in relations with Tokyo will only happen if Tokyo ceases to become a pawn and weapon in Washington’s anti-China “containment and encirclement” conspiracy. Beijing cadres have privately cited the so-called Australian, Singapore and South Korean model. This is a reference to direct or indirect pledges made by politicians and community leaders in these countries that in the event of a conflict between China and the U.S. over Taiwan – or other issues – Canberra, Singapore and Seoul will remain largely neutral. In the case of Japan, Hu is anxious to secure from the Koizumi administration at least an indirect and secret promise that Tokyo will prevent U.S. military forces from using Japan’s bases for the purpose of attacking China. It is understood that Beijing is willing to make generous concessions – including backing Tokyo’s bid for PMUNSC – if Tokyo were willing to stop being, in Chinese perception, “Uncle Sam’s main hit-man in the Asia-Pacific.”

Willy Wo-Lap Lam is a Senior Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation as well as a Hong Kong-based journalist and analyst.