Chinese Hatred of Japan—Real or Government-Created?

Antipathy toward their former colonial occupier is still pervasive in China -- but this no longer automatically translates into support for the Communist Party.

Protesters set fire to a Japanese flag after placing flower wreaths dedicated to those killed in World War II outside the Japanese consulate in Hong Kong. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

"On this day in 1945, Japan announced unconditional surrender." The official account of China Central Television posted this information on Weibo, one of China's largest social media platforms, and it quickly spread. Three trending posts, with a combined 236,000 retweets, identified the day's significance and emphasized the number of Chinese who had been wounded and killed during the war -- 35 million by China's official estimates.

Within an hour, the hashtag "#NeverForgetNationalHumiliationbegan to trend, drawing a mix of patriotism, anger, and confusion. User @谭兵林 asked, "How can you not mention to whom the Japanese surrendered?" Others criticized the appropriation of a day thought to be a victory to remember a period of national humiliation: "Many people have told me that today is a day of national humiliation," wrote @Cepheus的旁座-ELF, "but ... isn't today the day Japan surrendered? How can Japan surrendering be a day of national humiliation?"

How much of this anti-Japanese sentiment is real, and how much manufactured? All three trending articles were posted by state-run media, with some users complaining that "50-cent party" users -- those alleged to write pro-government posts for money -- played a role in spreading and promoting the anti-Japan comments. Yet much of the reaction was organic. In last year's round of anti-Japan protests, Chinese authorities sought to promote such protests, but also control them, fearing public anger might spiral out of control. While the government may be seeking to use public sentiment, perhaps as a distraction from domestic issues, Chinese dissatisfaction with Japan is not entirely manufactured; it has sharply increased over the last year, while public support for Japan among Chinese has fallen 12 percentage points over the last five years, according to a recent Pew survey.

In particular, Japanese officials' annual visit to Yasukuni, the shrine memorializing Japanese soldiers who fought in the Second World War, has angered Chinese. One Weibo user wrote, "When I saw on TV that the number of Japanese who visited the Yasukuni Shrine was double that of last year, I felt myself become suddenly enraged." Many others joined in, calling for an attack on Japan or a boycott of Japanese goods.

Some version of the Yasukuni Shrine controversy replays itself between China and Japan every year, but tensions between the two countries have been especially raw of late. Last year, violent protests erupted throughout China as Japan announced it was nationalizing a chain of islands, known by Japan as the Senkaku and China as the Diaoyu. A survey conducted annually since 2005 showed that last year, 92.8 percent of Chinese and 90.1 percent of Japanese have "unfavorable feelings" toward the other's country, with 77.6 percent of Chinese citing the aforementioned dispute as the main motivating factor.

Japan's recent political moves -- including the move to nationalize the islands -- have added fuel to an already-burning fire. The Chinese education system has long incorporated teachings about Japanese atrocities during World War II and encouraged negative feelings toward the country. But this anti-Japanese sentiment is not simply an expression of regret for the past. As long-time China watchers Orville Schell and John Delury wrote in their new book, Wealth and Power:

Foreign superiority (as remembered in the Opium Wars, colonization, and Japanese occupation) may have been humiliating and shameful, but it also served as a sharp goad urging Chinese to sacrifice for all the various reform movements and revolutions that came to be launched as a way to remove the stigma of their shame.

Yet dissatisfaction with Japan no longer translates as cleanly as it once did into patriotic support of China's own government. Wrote one Weibo user, "After 1949 [when the People's Republic of China was founded], how many died from causes besides war? Who will remember them?" Another was more explicit: "More than 20 million were killed during the Cultural Revolution. Over 10 million starved during the Great Leap Forward."

Increasingly, driven by greater information transparency and reforms decades in the making, many Chinese are rejecting the selective memory of official media, and the idea that patriotism precludes criticism of the government. As user @TaoTao小莹 wrote:

Never forget national humiliation. We must rejuvenate China. Let the ordinary people eat food they don't need to worry about. Make education universally available. Ensure that officials truly serve the people. Raise the overall quality of life for the people. Then we can go back to talking about attacking Japan, OK?

This post first appeared at Tea Leaf Nation, an Atlantic partner site.