China Is Fanning Nationalist Fires Ever So Carefully

Beijing fears anti-Japan protests will backfire

Across the Chinese world, nationalism is on the rise. In Hong Kong, anti-Japanese groups are calling for boycotts of goods from Japan to protest Tokyo's claims to a tiny chain of disputed islands in the East China Sea. In Beijing, students are going online to voice their anger at Japanese claims to the islands, which Japan calls the Senkaku and China calls the Diaoyu. Off Taiwan, protesters have even been dodging Japan's coast guard vessels as they attempt to tear down a lighthouse erected by Japanese right-wingers. And in San Francisco and Vancouver, thousands of overseas Chinese marched in late September against Japan.

China's leaders seem to be fostering such feelings. For months, nationalist sentiment has been running high in the streets of Beijing. One reason: anticipation of Hong Kong's return to China next July 1. The leadership also finds antiforeign messages politically potent as President Jiang Zemin and other leaders maneuver into the post-Deng Xiaoping era. In the official press, Beijing regularly accuses other governments of conspiring to deny China its rightful place among the global powers. Over the summer, an anti-American screed written by young Chinese authors became a best-seller in the state-run bookstores.

But fearful that anti-Japanese demonstrators could turn their ire on the Chinese government, authorities are playing a carefully hedged game. Official government television and newspapers, for example, are not carrying reports on the protests. Security at Beijing's universities, traditional hotbeds of protests, has been heightened to maintain calm.

The government finds some nationalism useful. With their Marxist ideology discredited, the country's leaders have launched a "spiritual civilization" campaign to educate people about the superiority of Chinese culture. Members of China's intellectual elite do their part with works charging that the country deserves more respect as Asia's emerging superpower. Battles over human rights, trade, and Taiwan have left many Chinese disillusioned with U.S. policy. Small wonder the new book, The China that Can Say No, is a bestseller. "Once Chinese young people become disgusted, it's very hard to pull them back," says Shanghai Vice-Mayor Zhao Qizheng.

But Beijing's leaders can run with the nationalism issue only so far before it backfires against their interests. In its long history, China has much experience with anti-Japanese protesters turning against the government. Jiang also runs the risk of hardliners stepping in to call the shots, as they did during Beijing's military showdown with Taiwan earlier this year. Jiang needs to worry that overplaying antiforeign sentiment could again force his hand.

SOME WORRIES. The Chinese leadership also doesn't want the nationalist tone to harm its security or economic interests. China is increasingly concerned that greater military cooperation between Tokyo and Washington is aimed at "containing" the Chinese. Under the new deal signed last April, the Japanese will go much further than in the past in providing logistical support should the U.S. need to project power in the region. A blowout with Japan would also jeopardize Beijing's economic interests. Japanese direct investment hit $3.1 billion in 1995, and two-way trade was worth about $57 billion.

Behind the scenes, diplomats are worried that the nationalist fires may not be containable. With an election approaching, Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto is not about to stop the rightists from conducting activities on what the Japanese consider to be private property. However, Tokyo Foreign Minister Yukihiko Ikeda met his Chinese counterpart Qian Qichen in New York in late September to let Beijing know that Japan is not interested in straining ties over an obscure piece of rock in the East China Sea.

Neither, ultimately, is Beijing. By reining in anti-Japanese protesters, the Chinese government runs the risk of exposing its nationalist rhetoric as hollow. "It's nationalism with Chinese characteristics," sniffs Lin Cheng-yi, a professor at Academia Sinica, a Taipei think tank. "It can be used as a tool rather than a principle." Still, preventing nationalism from getting out of control is a far better option than outright confrontation between Asia's two giants.