China's and Japan's Diaoyu/Senkaku-Islands Dispute: The iPhone 5 Factor

How Apple's newest device became an accessory to an international crisis.

How Apple's newest device became an accessory to an international crisis.


Just as tempers had begun to cool off after anti-Japanese riots left Hondas and Toyotas strewn, vandalized, across China's streets two weeks ago, tensions on the microblogging site Weibo began to rise again over news that in Japan, the newly released iPhone 5 listed a set of contested islands -- known as Diaoyu in China, Senkaku in Japan, and claimed by both countries -- as part of the Okinawa Prefecture, part of Japan. To complicate matters, the Senkaku-labeled islands appear beside a duplicated set of the same islands, labeled the Chinese way. Within the first few hours after news broke, over 760,000 outraged posts appeared on Weibo, nearly all calling for boycotts of the latest iPhone.

Apple's new iPhone displays two sets of the disputed islands in the East China Sea. (Anthony Adragna)

Some of the Weibo posts demonstrate more nuance than others, but a common theme they share is an underlying assumption that the iPhone symbolizes America's political stance -- and by extension, U.S. hypocrisy. Miyou de jiang (@米油的酱) writes "Boycott Apple!!! Make them declare their position on the diaoyu islands (抵制苹果!!!让他们表态。)." Pan Xinyi De Weibo (@潘欣毅De微博)" wrote, "It is the United States supporting Japan from behind that Japan dares to buy the Diaoyu islands (就因为有美国在背后撑腰,小日本才敢购买钓鱼岛。)." Beijing Morning Post (@北京晨报) puts it rather bluntly, "Double-faced practices! ( 两面派做法吧!)."

For these microbloggers, the iPhone 5 map is the latest in a long line of U.S. missteps regarding the recent Sino-Japanese dispute. Officially, Washington has nothing to say on the issue. But when State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a briefing on August 28 that the United States formally refers to these "special little rocks" as the Senkakus and not also the Diaoyus, it signaled to China that perhaps the United States was not really playing Pontius Pilate.

Nuland also reemphasized that the islands fall under the scope of Article 5 of the 1960 U.S.-Japan Treaty, which obligates the U.S. to defend these islands on Japan's behalf. As a journalist pointed out at the briefing, declaring neutrality seems a bit contradictory, particularly since the U.S. is also engaging in joint military drills with Japan in the Pacific. While not a new phenomenon, it is the first time the two countries are practicing on islands, which the Chinese find suspicious and interpret as drills for defending the Diaoyu or Senkaku islands.

Xu Wu, a professor of communications and media studies at Arizona State University, describes the sway of cybernationalism as a "double-edged sword without a handle" that the Communist Party must keep at equilibrium lest it get crushed. "It is a ruthless force," Xu said, "a dangerous game, like picking up nickels in front of a steamroller."

Many of these microbloggers, and those protesting on the streets last week, are known as "angry youth" or fenqing (愤青). While often applied to several generations of Chinese, including the pro-democracy students of Tiananmen, the term more recently describes the current cohort's hyper-nationalist and anti-Western streak.

But today's anti-Japanese riots, mostly youth-driven, are not new. They echo another set of anti-Western riots that erupted in 2008.

During the summer Olympic games in Beijing, a new wave of nationalism swept the nation in response to western criticism of China over Tibet. After torch relays were disrupted in Paris by pro-Tibet activists, youths in China rioted and boycotted Carrefour, a French supermarket franchise with hundreds of branches in the country. One fenqing, who chose to remain anonymous, told the Financial Times, "People in the West don't understand the Tibet issue and they are being tricked into attacking China."

After the 2008 riots, scholars and media scrambled to define and understand this new breed of fenqing and what it would mean for China's foreign policy. In a panel held by the Brookings Institute in 2009, four experts drew similar conclusions: many fenqing are well educated and part of the elite. As such, they exert significant influence over the Communist Party's foreign policy, which in turn affects countries like the United States.

One panelist, Evan Osnos of The New Yorker, wrote a comprehensive piece about fenqing and profiled Tang Jie, who created a nationalist video, "2008 China stand up!" that went viral over Weibo. Osnos discovered that these youths, or at least ones like him masterminding viral video campaigns, are well versed in both Western and Chinese politics. Tang told Osnos of his frustrations on Western media portrayal of China:

"Like many of his peers, Tang couldn't figure out why foreigners were so agitated about Tibet -- an impoverished backwater, as he saw it, that China had tried for decades to civilize. Boycotting the Beijing Games in the name of Tibet seemed as logical to him as shunning the Salt Lake City Olympics to protest America's treatment of the Cherokee."

Tang's comments give us pause at a time when Western media has suggested in some instances that the Communist Party is taking advantage of anti-Japanese fervor, or even instigating it to deflect internal criticism. While it may be true, some say it is not the whole picture.

The hard part is predicting whether -- or when -- Weibo's hundreds of thousands of angry but silent posts will spill out and onto the streets. Theresa Wright, a political science professor at California State University in Long Beach and a participant on the four-person panel, had some apt advice for the West in 2009 that still resonates today.

"In terms of how foreigners should respond to China's youth," she said, "the lesson is something that some Americans (and other Westerners) may not want to hear: rather than treating China's young people as misguided individuals in need of enlightenment, we need to accept them on their own terms, and with respect. Many Chinese today -- both young and old -- have a sense of pride, a feeling that China is finally 'getting it right.' "