Six years ago, in the first article I filed after moving to Shanghai, I listed the things that struck me as different, compared with my initial visits to China 20 years before. At the top of the list was the increased virulence of anti-Japanese sentiment in modern China.
The suffering of the Japanese occupation in the 1930s and of what China calls the "anti-Japanese War" (to us, World War II) was a generation further removed than it had been on my first visit. But the emotional intensity of complaints about Japan seemed much greater. The state-run TV networks ran documentaries and dramas about Japanese offenses practically every night; teenaged students whose parents would have been too young to remember the war explained how much they themselves burned with resentment. As I put it then:
When I have asked young people why they should be so wrapped up with events seventy years in the past, the reply is some variant of: "We Chinese are students of history." There are certain phrases you hear so often that you know they can't be true, at least not at face value. Yes, China's years of subjugation by Western countries and Japan obviously still matter. But the history that is more recent but less often discussed is that of the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976, when the parents of today's college students were sent into the countryside and often forced to denounce their own parents....
So far every student gathering I've been to has included a volunteered reference to the evil Japanese, and none has included a reference to the evils of Chairman Mao... and his Cultural Revolution.
I've learned a lot since then, but for now I'm just introducing some links to the unusually intensive anti-Japanese protests happening across much of China these past few days. (I had expected to be in Beijing right now, but the international conference I was going to was called off at short notice, because of "delicate political conditions.") To begin, two photos that have been widely circulated in the Chinese online world. One is taken outside an Audi dealership, where people who appear to be the dealership's employees hold a banner that says "we must exterminate the Japanese":
The full legend on the banner, as translated by Charlie Custer of China Geeks, reads: "Even if China becomes nothing but tombstones, we must exterminate the Japanese; even if we have to destroy our own country, we must take back the Diaoyu Islands."
You can read more about these small islands -- the Diaoyus to China, Senkakus to Japan -- at Custer's site, including his argument that "China's Anti-Japan Riots are State Sponsored. Period." Beginning of his case: At any genuinely unauthorized protest in China, you see police and security forces by the ton. As he puts it, with emphasis in original:
[Y]our first inclination [after seeing photos like this] may be to marvel at the particularly insane bits, like the hotel advertising that Japanese guests are no longer welcome or the Audi dealership with banners outside that literally advocate mass genocide (is this a new Audi sales campaign?). But for anyone who has been to a protest in China before, your second inclination is going to be to say this: where are all the fucking cops?
For more on the background of the disputes and the implications of these apparently state-condoned riots, you can start with: the NYT, with side-by-side English and Chinese versions; the Globe and Mail; ZeroHedge, with many dramatic photos; additional photos of violence from Right Now I/O; ChinaFile; the BBC and CNN; the East Asia Forum; the WSJ's China Real Time report, with videos of violent outbreaks; and many others I'll catch up with tomorrow and the next.
This is an introduction to a theme I mentioned over the weekend and that I will try to do my best to pursue systematically in the next week or two (and beyond). That theme is the difference between the relentlessly surging-ahead Chinese economy as so often portrayed in American journalistic and political discussion (eg the article discussed here), and the many, many signs of political, cultural, financial, and even moral strain emerging in the real-world China that is the stage for the current protests.
More soon, but I wanted to acknowledge this recent and negative development in the news.
UPDATE Bill Bishop's Sinocism newsletter is full of extra links and analyses of the anti-Japanese uproar inside China.