Vague feelings of uneasiness and antagonism toward China are said to be spreading among the Japanese. Deep down, these sentiments no doubt stem from frustration with Japan’s current situation, particularly in comparison with China’s recent rise in the world. At the same time, however, there are a number of blind spots in many people’s view of China, and these are having a detrimental effect on Japanese sentiment toward China.
One of the blind spots lies in the perception of the current state of Chinese society. There is a widespread assumption that huge disparities and inequalities exist between different regions and classes, and many people seem to have convinced themselves that these gulfs will have a profound impact on China’s future. Certainly there is no doubt that social and regional disparities have grown significantly during the country’s explosive economic growth. But a longer historical perspective shows that relatively wide social differentials have often been a feature of Chinese society. In this respect, the early years of Communist rule were exceptional. Viewed in this light, it would be a mistake to think that the existence of social inequalities per se represents a new and critical situation. As long as continuing economic growth gives people the sense that life is better today than it was yesterday, popular discontent is likely to dissipate even if the gaps widen further.
The Path for Japan
Many people in Japan fail to appreciate this point, and are apprehensive about China’s future. The tens of thousands of protests mounted each year across China are often cited as evidence in favour of this pessimistic view. In many cases, the catalyst for these mass demonstrations is simple dissatisfaction with some aspect of the administration’s management of land use, transportation, food, housing, or similar matters directly affecting ordinary people’s lives. The protests provide a way of venting discontent with the one-party dictatorship of the CPC. In this light, they can be regarded not so much as a wellspring of political unrest as a kind of social buffer.
There are a number of reasons for Japanese feelings of dislike toward China, including intellectual property rights violations, food safety (Chinese imports have been implicated in several incidents of food poisoning in recent years) and transportation safety in China. Certainly the Chinese approach is problematic in some respects compared with the way the Japanese authorities deal with similar issues, but it seems rather petty to regard these cases as areas where China is causing trouble for the Japanese. This overlooks the fact that it is the Chinese themselves who suffer the most as a result of these problems. Instead, people in Japan would do better to encourage the governments of Japan and China to work together on resolving the issues.
Finally, let me say a word about perceptions of history. Some people in Japan complain that China is practicing what might be called “harassment diplomacy” by constantly bringing up unfortunate incidents from the past. To be sure, there has been an element of this in the foreign policy line China has followed at times. But searching for historical precedents is one of the characteristic ways in which Chinese culture engages in debate on all sorts of matters. Chinese people use incidents from their history as a basis for interpreting the present. It strikes me as rather childish of the Japanese to get angry just because the Chinese are constantly making references to history. (January 4, 2012)
(Originally written in Japanese.)
Invited professor, Aoyama Gakuin University; secretary general, Tokyo 2020 Bid Committee. Born in 1938. Graduated from the Law Faculty at the University of Tokyo and the Faculty of Economics at the University of Cambridge. Joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1962, serving as director general of the Cultural Affairs Department and of the Economic Affairs Bureau, deputy minister for foreign affairs, and ambassador to Vietnam, South Korea, and France. President of the Japan Foundation from October 2003 to September 2011. His works include Gurōbarizumu e no hangyaku (Rebellion Against Globalism; 2004).