Friday, November 23, 2012

Intelligent Sinophiles

The recent BBC article by Martin Jacques, entitled “A Point of view: is China more legitimate than the West?”, has provoked the ire of seasoned “China Watchers” everywhere. A few intelligent rebuttals have already been produced. I saw the article yesterday, and the reason I wasn’t surprised by its content is that I had already browsed through Jacques’s recent book, When China Rules the World.

The fact is that for anyone with a real knowledge of China, it is impossible to take Jacques too seriously. His triumphalism about the Chinese model masquerading as impartial analysis just does not fit in with the actual situation in China, and few Chinese would share it. His idea that the Chinese see the state as the head of their family, even some sort of “extension of themselves”, and that the government enjoys great authority and legitimacy, doesn’t coincide with what those who really know the Chinese will tell you. And as it has been remarked elsewhere, the surveys of satisfaction with the Chinese government which he quotes cannot be taken too seriously.

It is funny that in his article, Jacques mentions Italy as an example of a country where, in spite of constant elections, the government lacks popular legitimacy. This is supposed to be in opposition to China, where the government enjoys great legitimacy in spite of the lack of elections. In fact the Italians and the Chinese are actually rather similar in their attitudes: the only thing they take seriously is their circle of family and friends. Outside of that, nothing really matters. The state is seen as something which has to be put up with, and the corruption of those in power is met with cynical acceptance. 

Unsurprisingly Martin Jacques has little personal experience of China, and cannot speak Chinese. He apparently spent a short period as a visiting professor in Renmin University. Not enough time to really understand the country, but just enough time to be awed and overwhelmed, while not having to deal with any of the real problems of living here.

The tragedy is that the most basic arguments outlined in Jacques’s book are correct, or at least deserve a hearing. China is indeed going to become more important in the future, the West will no longer dominate the global order, China and other Asian countries are not going to become more Western as they become more modern. China is the product of a different history, and we cannot hope to understand it by just applying Western concepts and prejudices in a different context. And yes, the Chinese state is quite efficient and effective in a number of ways, while managing to retain a certain amount of consensus (does that equate legitimacy?), even though none of the Confucian-style devotion he imagines.

All this is true and needs to be said, but it would take somebody who actually knows Chinese society to say it, someone who is aware of China’s problems and negative sides and does not just engage in blind sycophancy towards Beijing. We may need Sinophiles, but intelligent, informed and balanced ones.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

On Japan and the Diaoyu islands

       (above, one of the many Chinese demonstrations against Japan's control of the Diaoyu islands)
China Daily reported last week that Kawahare Keiichiro, a 28 year old Japanese nurse and globe-trotter, is continuing to volunteer in the earthquake-hit areas of Yunnan Province in spite of the current animosity towards Japan within China. Kawahare first caught the Chinese media’s attention last February, when the expensive bicycle on which he planned to travel around the world was stolen in Wuhan, but then improbably returned after three days by the local police after he publically called for help on Weibo. This caught people’s eye mainly because bicycles are stolen the whole time in China, and usually nobody even bothers to report it. The idea of the police actually finding your bicycle again would normally be ludicrous.

Anyway, during the last few months the young Japanese idealist has apparently had to lie about his country of origin to protect his safety numerous times, had service refused in shops, and was even surrounded by a group of young men yelling at him in Guiyang after they identified him as Japanese. Even so, he is planning to carry on volunteering in China, and stated to China Daily: "I don't care about politics and the stupid islands thing, I care about victims of the earthquake. People are people, and governments are governments."

Here in Beijing people are still as fired up as ever over the Diaoyu islands issue. It has become quite common to see stickers on cars and shop windows with patriotic slogans on how the Diaoyus belong to China. The owners of Japanese-made cars will sometimes display a sticker on the back window saying things like “the car is Japanese, but the heart Chinese” in an attempt to dissuade hot-heads from damaging the car.

Practically all the Chinese I have spoken to are adamant that the islands belong to China and that China should, if necessary, use force to get them back (although one young man did tell me that they are “just some stupid islands where nobody lives”). When I suggested to my Chinese friends that the Chinese government was making a big deal of the issue to divert the people’s attention at this delicate time when the country’s leadership is about to be changed, their reply was along the lines of “yes, that’s probably true, but that’s the government’s thing, it’s nothing to do with us, the islands belong to China”.

Although China has territorial issues with other countries as well, it is a safe bet that emotions would not be running so high if the other country involved wasn’t Japan. Dislike of Japan runs deep in China, as anyone who has lived here will know. Most Chinese, although not all, strongly resent Japan’s occupation of China during the Second World War, and their perceived lack of contrition or recognition of their mistakes. The Chinese educational system and Chinese television, which features constant re-runs of old war films on the Japanese occupation, reinforce this resentment.

Western “China-watchers” tend to blame the Chinese government for encouraging generations of Chinese to hate Japan as a way to deflect the people’s anger on an external target and fan the flames of nationalism. I personally feel that it would be unfair to present Chinese resentment of Japanas being solely the result of manipulation and propaganda, although the government certainly has an interest in encouraging it. After all the South Koreans with their different government also resent Japan, perhaps even more strongly than the Chinese do. 

When the Chinese claim that “unlike Germany, Japan never apologized for the War”, they are technically incorrect. It is a fact that Japanese prime ministers have on various occasions apologized directly for what their country did to its neighbours, including China, during the War. Having said this, it is also a fact that Japanese society’s attitudes towards the Second World War are deeply different from German attitudes. While the mainstream of German society unreservedly condemns Nazism and is acutely aware of all the atrocities Germany committed, Japanese society seems to be far less aware of the darker side of its past, less willing to discuss it openly and more ambiguous in how it judges the war-time regime.

There are still constant cases of mainstream Japanese politicians either minimizing or outright denying the atrocities committed by Japanese troops during the war, and presenting the country’s war effort as a benign push to liberate the rest of Asiafrom Western imperialism. Most official Japanese apologies were made as a result of similar outbursts causing a scandal in the rest of Asia. It is still common to hear Japanese people voice the opinion that their country was pushed into war, and justifying its wartime actions.

It is hard to say what Europe would be like nowadays if Germany had maintained such an attitude. I wonder if the European Union would even exist. As it is resentment against Germany took decades to die down in the rest of the continent, in spite of the fact that the German state unreservedly apologized, paid reparations to some of its victims and taught its younger generations all about the Holocaust and the War.

Even nowadays the memory of Nazi occupation seems to be rekindled whenever there is a disagreement between Germany and another European country. Only recently Greek politicians raised the issue of the money Germany plundered from Greece during the war, money which was never repaid. In 2010 the Greek prime minister rather implausibly blamed the state of the country’s finances on this fact.

Across much of Europe, the image of a German chancellor trying to impose policies on local governments leaves an uncomfortable feeling. While memories of the War may not usually translate into resentment of modern day Germans, they often do so when relations with Germany sour. Given this fact, can Europeans really be surprised that the Japanese, who are far less repentant than the Germans, are still resented in China?

Having said this, it is undeniable that Chinese animosity against Japan can reach unenlightened and ridiculous extremes. It is sometimes possible to hear Chinese people claiming (only half-seriously I hope) that their country should one day attack Japanin revenge. Terms of abuse like 小日本鬼子 are constantly used when discussing Japan. The blanket dislike of all things Japanese expressed by Chinese youngsters whose parents were not even born during the war, and who probably grew up watching Japanese cartoons, feels like an induced reflex more than a result of genuine grievances.

Although not all Chinese share these attitudes, they remain widespread amongst the young as much as the old, and the islands dispute is now exacerbating people’s feelings. Although Japanese individuals don’t usually encounter actual violence in China, as long as the Diaoyu islands remain front page news Japanese people may well be wise not to advertise their origins too loudly. In the mean time it can only be hoped that people like the brave young Japanese nurse in Yunnan will continue working to build bridges, and that the Chinese media will continue reporting with honesty on such people.