Several weeks ago, I contemplated a piece with the working title “Finding Neverland.” I planned to argue that a disproportionate number of Chinese people exist in a prolonged child-like state, never cultivating the independence and self-reliance that are often named among the most admirable American qualities.
I planned to use the “one-child policy” as the centerpiece of my argument, producing as it has generations of men and women afflicted with “only-child syndrome.” To wit: men fulfill their obligation to provide a family home not with the proverbial sweat of their brows, but by running to Mommy and Daddy with palms upturned (a Chinese friend was dumbfounded that I was tightening my belt in order to repay a loan from my Dad. “In China,” he confided, “you would never really pay a parent back. We might call it “a loan,” but it is really a gift.”). Worse, most Chinese women I’ve met seem to think preening is their purpose in life. Once bedecked in fake nails, lashes, and porn-star heels, they feel they are entitled to whatever frivolous thing they glimpse in a shop window.
This twinkle in my mind’s eye would also include, I thought, anecdotes drawn from the real-life soap-opera of my former boss (age forty), who split from his estranged wife official after several loveless years. No sooner were divorce papers signed than he announced he would begin the search for her replacement. He would insist on a minimum one-year courtship period, he said, to avoid choosing poorly again. Three months later, however, he swept a Chinese lady eleven years his junior off to the local office to re-tie the knot. One would naturally assume such a hasty union arose from the romantic ardor of kindred spirits. Yet, from the time he “met” her online to the time they married, I personally witnessed a score of tantrums from the blushing bride, including one that propelled her all the way to her home city, leaving behind a trail of melodramatic voicemails stating and re-stating, “We’re through” (I suspect her evanescence was the driving force behind the wedding). Does anyone with even a modicum of maturity think that’s the way to avoid a cold, loveless marriage redux?
This was the skeleton of the essay I considered and then abandoned, wanting to probe new themes. And wanting, if the truth be told, to find something good to say about a country that can, to one who values free speech and intellectual inquiry, seem short on redeeming values.
However, recent developments have forced my hand.
* * *
On September 10th, Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura announced Japan would buy the three uninhabited islands in the East China Sea— which Japan calls the Senkakus and China the Diaoyu group—from their private owner.
Any expression of designs on contested territory is bound to be incendiary. Did Japan invite this risk to remind the world it’s still a force to be reckoned with? Or perhaps this is the insecure “acting-out” of a power on the wane; maybe the Diaoyu incident is the international equivalent of shouting “You don’t scare me!” at the bully who scares you to death. But China initially responded not with diplomacy, nor with the dismissive snort befitting an aspiring superpower, but by precipitously yielding the moral high ground with a series of statements at once hypocritical and propagandist.
The Communist Party promptly issued a statement through the state-controlled paper Xinhua:
Despite the repeated solemn representations of China, the Japanese government announced on Sept. 10 the so-called “purchase” of the Diaoyu Islands and the affiliated Nanxiao Dao and Beixiao Dao to “nationalize” them. This act is a severe infringement of Chinese territorial sovereignty, which gravely hurts the feelings of the 1.3 billion Chinese people and seriously tramples on historical facts and international laws. The Chinese government and people have expressed firm opposition and strong protest toward the act.
The Chinese government has solemnly stated that the Japanese government’s so-called “island purchase” is illegal, invalid and cannot in the least change the historical fact of the Japanese occupation of Chinese territory, and cannot in the least change China’s territorial sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands and their affiliated islets. The era of the Chinese people’s humiliation has passed, not to return again. The Chinese government will not sit back as its territorial sovereignty is violated. The Chinese side strongly urges the Japanese side to immediately stop all acts that harm China’s territorial sovereignty, come back 100 percent to the consensus and understanding reached by both sides and use negotiation to resolve disputes. If the Japanese side clings obstinately to its own course, all serious consequences from this can only be borne by the Japanese side… China will never yield an inch of territory.
Let us set aside the fact that China regularly runs afoul of international laws and standards. Less than two weeks before the Diaoyu story broke, for example, Human Rights Watch reported that China had forced 4,000 ethnic Kachin refugees back to the Burmese conflict zone from whence they had fled. Seeming to reference not International Law but the Law of the Jungle, China summarily declared that the Kachin were not refugees and denied them any chance to claim protected status. In light of its own record, it is, I feel, a little brass-necked to charge the Noda government with “trampling… international laws.”
Let us set aside the unnecessary allusions to bygone Sino-Japanese clashes, scattered like Claymores throughout the statement. In this context, I question the relevance of Japan’s 1931 invasion of Northern China—considering that the “aggressor” has long since adopted a constitutional amendment that forbids it from declaring war—that is, unless such historical artifacts are merely invoked to rile up a people whose psyche never quite recovered from the old invasion. Could there be a connection between the Xinhua statement and slogans that appeared again and again on the signs of protestors, reading “Remember our national humiliation”?
Let us set aside the baffling conclusion that, because China disagrees with Japan on the ownership of the Diaoyu Islands, it therefore has carte blanche to act as it sees fit. Could China declare nuclear war, waving away the objections of the international community on the grounds that Japan had been “obstinate in its course” and must bear “all serious consequences” that follow? How wonderful! As the only nation ever to drop the A-bomb on civilians, perhaps the U.S. will consider issuing a retroactive statement clearing Truman of wrongdoing (the Japanese of the 1940s certainly were “obstinate”!).
Let us instead focus on language of China’s political officials.
This act… gravely hurts the feelings of the 1.3 billion Chinese people… The era of the Chinese people’s humiliation has passed, not to return again… China will never yield an inch of territory.
These are the words of a scrawny child who got bullied growing up. Now, in the grip of a long-overdue growth spurt, he’s itching for revenge. Save for the slightly formal (and, in translation, awkward) language, one could almost imagine this issuing from the mouth of a wispy-chinned, pock-marked teen. Surely the relationship of Asia’s dominant economic powers cannot be reduced to the playground politics of the bully and the bullied?
Or can it?
I find it interesting that the Xinhua statements betray a bully’s insecurity, never taking ownership of any opinion. Apparently, in everything it does, the Party has the full-throated support of that monolith known as “the people.” Ren min are invoked every second sentence, as if all 1.3 billion were in the room when the document was drafted. Who expressed “firm opposition”? The Chinese government? No! “The Chinese government and people…”
On the other hand, large swathes of the Chinese population do seem to support the statement, offering up very believable performances of ire. Ten thousand people turned out in the provincial capital of Xi’an, storming the locations of Japanese brands such as Sony, Ajisen Ramen, and even setting Japanese-made cars alight.
In Changhsha, the Heiwado Department Store façade was smashed as a precursor to indiscriminate looting by opportunistic “patriots.” In Shenzhen, police resorted to tear gas to disperse the increasingly out-of-control crowd. Elsewhere, Panasonic factories sustained costly damage to facilities and equipment.
A photo of anti-Japanese protests, taken in the northern province of Inner Mongolia, features a banner reading “哪怕华夏 遍地坟, 也要杀光日本人” : “Even if all China becomes a grave, we must kill every Japanese.”
Although Xi’an’s protests top the list, demonstrators numbered in the thousands in several of the 57 participating cities. All told, September 15 stands as the single largest anti-Japanese demonstrations since the countries established diplomatic relations in 1972.
Widespread destruction of private property? Factories torched? Autos upended? And, if some people get their way, a Passover-esque massacre of China’s neighbor and closest trading partner? And all this over handful of unpopulated pebbles in the East China Sea? Really?
I understand there are issues of principle at stake here: no country can take lightly threats to its territorial sovereignty. Perhaps, by laying claim to these islands, Japan positions itself to nationalize the surrounding waters, and the resources that lie beneath.
Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. But this is far from a clear-cut issue. If both sides voice legitimate claims to the islands, then there is diplomatic Jujitsu in the offing. If Japan, instead, stages a “purchase” of the islands—but China does not recognize the deal—we are in exactly the same place as before.
But, more to the point, where was the reflective pause wherein rationality reasserts itself? The deep breathes while counting to ten? The moment when a protestor asks himself, “What do I accomplish by junking my neighbor’s Camry, besides sewing hatred and hysteria?”
Such rational thought seemed to be missing from the dialogue. In fact, the dialogue itself was missing. In its place, there was only a sudden convulsion of anger. Is this how the Chinese people respond to complex events of national significance? Well, then, it’s disgraceful. It’s appalling. It is, to return to the theme of this piece, almost unimaginably childish that a diplomatic tug-of-the-pony-tail should be cause for widespread rioting, looting, and assault.
Yet, in the context of China, another crucial question remains: did “the people” feel this way before the government told them they did? Anyone familiar with the state-run media can tell you the CCP is not above “influencing” public opinion—or, where that fails, inventing an public with more politically expedient opinions. Personally, I find it hard to believe that far-flung pockets of disgruntled Chinese could be whipped into such a frenzy without some centralized help.
Certainly, the coverage so far seems to suggest the government wants to author a certain narrative. A few days into the riots, the front page of the People’s Daily reported demonstrators had “kept calm” and displayed “restraint”—apparently failing to notice the upturned cars, blackened factories, and smashed storefronts across the country. By commending Chinese “patriots” after multiple outbreaks of violence, this government mouthpiece implicitly gave its imprimatur for their actions.
The police have also responded in a manner consistent with my interpretation—that is, lethargically. By and large, China’s state security force has stood aside and let the riots to run their course. Rather than being dispersed, hellions all over the country found themselves allotted a time—say, fifteen or twenty minutes—in which to get their fill. In some cities, policemen took on the role of traffic wardens, directing protestors to the heart of the action. In only a few instances—and after violence threatened to overwhelm security forces–did police resort to crowd-control tactics. This level of restraint is highly unusual in a country where officials take a dim view of any collective action. It is interesting that, in this case, the authorities decided to set the acceptable amount of chaos and destruction at “some.”
No doubt government spin-doctors could explain away the Party’s one-off sanctioning of mob violence. Perhaps herding protestors to pre-determined areas for twenty minutes apiece was not “aiding and abetting,” but the best way to control the people’s righteous anger and limit property damage. Unfortunately, there is evidence fatal to this wide-eyed narrative of the government’s actions; evidence that the protests escalated with a little help from the top.
A few days ago, the Beijing Evening News, another government organ, posted a link on Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter). Within minutes, thousands of Chinese were scanning a side-by-side comparison of Chinese and Japanese military capabilities. The polemic concluded that China should use the atomic bomb in the forthcoming conflict. To anyone possessed of their faculties, the notion of nuclear war as an appropriate response is nothing short of madness. And, indeed, some commenters admonished the article’s author and the Beijing Evening News for war-mongering. Unfortunately, the incendiary screed also generated over a thousand comments in support of the nuclear plan of action.
So, let us return to the question at hand: is baying for blood the organic reaction of the Chinese people, or is it merely a response orchestrated by the Communist Party? Let us give people the benefit of the doubt and assume the latter. I believe it is highly plausible that the CCP is using the Diaoyu incident to fan the flames of Sino-Japanese distrust and resentment for its own purposes. Perhaps the Party wants to retaliate with a more ambitious land-grab. Perhaps it simply recognizes public antipathy toward Japan will be useful when and if it ever decides to deploy troops there. Or perhaps it is just trying to drum up nationalism as Xi Jinping assumes the presidency. Whatever the case, this is no knock on the Chinese people. No citizen deserves direct blame for the actions of his or her government, least of all when his or her country is headed up by an unelected cartel.
However, one of the defining characteristics of adulthood is recourse to rational thought. Adults are also assumed to have agency, so actions can be attributed to them directly. Over the past week, thousands and thousands of Chinese failed to exercise either rational thought or agency, taking their cues uncritically from a government pushing its own opaque agenda.
Neverland exists, and it’s the most populous country on earth.