“On September 18, 1931,” we are told, “a small quantity of dynamite was detonated by Lt. Kawamoto Suemori…” It was Japan’s pretext for the invasion of Manchuria. Aside from (probably) marking the beginning of World War II in Asia, the 9-18 incident is noteworthy for three reasons. First, it is one of those occasions when the image of China as a poor, helpless victim of foreign bullying – so important to Beijing when it is not snatching bits of the Philippines and Vietnam – is a reality. Second, it made the incompetence and weakness of China’s government in the face of foreign aggression obvious to the whole country, not for the first time. Third, the anniversary is tomorrow, just as demonstrations and even riots are breaking out in the Mainland against Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, and with the national leadership transition due to get underway. Hong Kong’s own anti-Japanese activists are setting up shop on the walkway outside Exchange Square, home of Tokyo’s local consulate.
When the nationalist governor of Tokyo announced a plan to buy the islands from their legal, private owner, the Japanese government felt it had no choice but to purchase them itself. Otherwise, the militantly anti-Chinese mayor would have used municipal ownership of the property to provoke Beijing, for example by brazenly building structures there. The Chinese leadership should have been grateful that Prime Minister Noda stepped in to ensure that this didn’t happen. Instead, someone in Beijing decided that this (inevitably) hurts the feelings of the Chinese people, and sent the word out through the media that Tokyo is trying to grab the territory. The result is Shenzhen erupting in fury, with citizens attacking Seibu department store (correct) and the city government offices (not correct).
One theory is that this is part of a factional power struggle, with outgoing President Hu Jintao stirring up trouble to justify his continued chairmanship of the Central Military Commission after Xi Jinping (‘I once was lost but now am found’) takes over from him, assuming that’s what’s going to happen. (Another explanation for Xi’s two-week disappearance: he was ‘on strike’ in protest against Hu’s efforts to retain influence.) Another theory is that the People’s Liberation Army is stirring things up in order to gain more clout in the new administration. Both could be correct, or neither.
Some parts of the Mainland state-run media have been criticizing Hu recently for his lackluster performance while in power, while the South China Morning Post reports anti-Japan demonstrators carrying pictures of Mao and Bo Xilai and placards calling for political reforms. It is often said that if the Chinese people ever rise up against their government, it will not because of economics, corruption or persecution, but because the leadership betrayed the nation by failing to defend its territorial integrity against dastardly foreigners – in other words, lapsing into the old bullying-victim model.
As in the past, it will all blow over – but not before everything has been ratcheted up another notch, with the Chinese people more convinced than ever of the rightness of the cause. One of China’s problems is that legally Japan has a half-decent claim to the islands in terms of treaties and recentness of the exercise of sovereignty. Beijing can argue a fairly good moral case: Japan took over the uninhabited rocks at a time of imperialist expansion, and a simple glance at a map suggests they would otherwise be Chinese territory today. It could also point out that under international agreements on the sea, such specks of rock are not entitled to a 200-mile economic zone. But the parallels with the Paracels and Spratleys in the South China Sea start to get too close for comfort. If China owns dots on the map that are close to China, so Vietnam and the Philippines must own their nearby dots as well. And we can’t have that. So we stick to lame arguments about thousand-year-old fishing practices and rely on volatile public emotion to make diplomatic points. Meanwhile, we wait to see if Hong Kong activists manage to get that rickety old fishing boat seaworthy enough to make another trip to the scenic outcrops.