Academic journal article China: An International Journal

China's History Activism and Sino-Japanese Relations

Academic journal article China: An International Journal

China's History Activism and Sino-Japanese Relations

Article excerpt

This essay explores the emergence and impact of populist "history activism" in China. History activism includes museums and academics documenting Japanese wartime atrocities in China, the redress movement demanding compensation for Chinese victims and popular protests against Japan over a range of issues. While the Chinese state played a central enabling role in the emergence of history activism in the early 1990s, activists have subsequently mobilised popular sentiments, lobbied for official support and exacerbated tensions between China and Japan.


Outbursts of popular anger towards Japan in China have been growing since 2001 over issues related to Japan's WWII-era invasion of China. Protests exploded in reaction to a Japanese construction company's hiring of hundreds of Chinese prostitutes on a sensitive wartime anniversary in September 2003; against a popular Chinese singer-actress photographed in September 2002 in a dress that resembled Japan's wartime "Rising Sun" flag; and even over a risque performance in October 2003 by Japanese students at a Xian University. In 2004, thousands of Chinese fans rioted at soccer matches against Japan in Chongqing and Beijing. Massive on-line petition campaigns in China have attacked Japan's pursuit of permanent membership in the UN Security Council, its delayed cleanup of chemical weapons left behind in China and the bids by Japanese companies to build a high-speed railway in China. Most recently, in April 2005 tens of thousands of protesters reacted to Japan's approval of conservative textbooks by attacking Japanese businesses and diplomatic offices in cities throughout China, sparking a major diplomatic standoff. (1)

What is happening? Is the Chinese state simply manipulating the public, stirring up popular anger at Japan to promote nationalism at home and constrain Japan abroad? Or are Chinese leaders trying to pursue engagement with Japan, only to find their hands tied due to powerful public sentiments? These debates go to the heart of one of the most pressing questions for Chinese foreign policy: how do the increasingly complex state-society relations in China affect China's foreign relations? (2) This essay explores this topic by investigating the interaction between state propaganda campaigns and populist "history activism" in China, as well as the implications for China's relations with Japan.

In the early 1980s, the Chinese Government began to criticise Japan's management of its wartime history in diplomatic interactions and in domestic propaganda campaigns in response to shifting domestic and foreign policy priorities. Yet unlike most state-led propaganda campaigns, the Government's rhetoric was warmly received, sparking a boom in popular activism dedicated to commemorating Chinese suffering during the Japanese invasion. The resultant "history activism" in China can be divided into three categories: state-sanctioned, autonomous and oppositional activism.

State-sanctioned activism, such as history museums and academic research on Japan's wartime atrocities, enjoys a symbiotic relationship with Government propaganda campaigns. New museums and academic research emerged in the wake of permissive Government policies. They rely heavily upon state-sponsored institutions for support and urge only greater commemoration of Chinese wartime suffering. Autonomous activism, such as the redress campaign seeking compensation for Chinese victims through lawsuits in Japan, was restricted by the state in its early stages but continues to enjoy organisational autonomy from the Government. It acts independently in international and domestic arenas, influencing the political environment in which policy decisions are made. Oppositional activism, such as the street and on-line protests which took place in the spring of 2005, is fully independent of the state. Although nominally in line with official rhetoric and occasionally used for diplomatic leverage, popular protests represent a potential challenge to the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) nationalist legitimacy and foreign policy objectives. …

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