China Cannot Go It Alone: Advice from a Concerned Friend

Sasakawa Yōhei [Profile]

[2013.07.12]

China has adopted a hard-line posture not just on its claim to Japan’s Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea but also regarding the Spratlys and Paracels in the South China Sea, insisting that all these islands are among its “core interests.” This has resulted in a volatile situation with Vietnam and the Philippines, whose claims overlap China’s. Countries around the world have become alarmed at this state of affairs. Meanwhile, there are also signs of change in China’s “honeymoon” relations with Africa.

Domestically, China faces many problems, including corruption among party and government officials, the gap between rich and poor, and environmental pollution. They are becoming even more serious, and delay in addressing them will cause the prospect for solutions to recede further into the future. If the country continues on its current course, it is liable to become internationally isolated and domestically unstable. As a person who has been working to promote Sino-Japanese friendship ever since meeting China’s top leader Deng Xiaoping 30 years ago, I am deeply concerned about China’s current condition.

Behavior Befitting the World’s Number-Two Country

The world is hoping that China will advance peacefully in accordance with international rules. China should reconsider its expansionism and work at promptly solving its domestic problems. This is the sort of dignified behavior expected of a country that ranks number two in the world and shares responsibility for shaping the international order. 

This spring Lamido Sanusi, governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, wrote an article in the Financial Times criticizing China’s behavior in Africa, where it has stepped up its investment and lending so as to secure supplies of natural resources. Massive imports of cheap Chinese products are hindering Africa’s industrialization, and the use of Chinese labor for development projects means fewer local jobs and little transfer of skills. Sanusi called China’s style of involvement “a new form of imperialism,” and the impact of his critique has been spreading steadily.

Meanwhile, on the domestic scene, 160,000 people were disciplined last year for corruption or other malfeasance arising from the rot among party and government officials. Late last year, in response to popular criticism and anger, the government announced a drive against official extravagance, including moves to restrain lavish wining and dining. And at a meeting of top party officials in June, President Xi Jinping expressed his sense of crisis about the situation, declaring that the party’s survival depended on its ability to win the people’s hearts.

But as a country where the Communist Party controls everything, China has no independent investigative organizations, and given the stepped-up suppression of the free expression of opinions in the media and by insightful individuals, the prospects for self-cleaning are poor. Senior officials and bureaucrats at both the national and local levels are asserting their vested interests, and the outlook for the cleanup campaign is bleak.

The wealth gap is also widening. China’s richest 10% hold more than 80% of the country’s wealth. The National Bureau of Statistics announced that the Gini coefficient, an indicator of income inequality, reached 0.474 last year, topping the 0.4 mark that is taken as the threshold for the onset of social instability and unrest. China has no inheritance or property taxes, so children can basically inherit their parent’s assets intact—unlike in Japan, where the estate tax reduces a fortune to nothing after it has been passed down three times. Rich people’s children are rich in China, and this situation will continue to prevail.

Like Japan, though, China has an aging population—partly because of its one-child policy—and the share of the working-age cohort will continue to shrink in the years to come. If economic growth slows as a result of this, it will be difficult to address the disparities by providing increased earnings for those with low incomes.

Environmental pollution is also serious. Smoke from factories and exhaust from motor vehicles have been shrouding Beijing, sharply reducing wintertime visibility and pushing up the level of PM2.5 (particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or less), which has also been reaching Japan. Also, according to a foreign press report, 64% of China’s cities have severely contaminated groundwater. 

Meanwhile, as if in tandem the rise in the seriousness of domestic problems like these, there is increasing harshness in the propaganda being directed against Japan through the teaching of history and inculcation of patriotism. According to a friend of mine who is well versed in Chinese affairs, last year about 200 films were produced in China on the subject of the patriotic anti-Japanese resistance during the Sino-Japanese War (1937–45), and 70 television dramas on the subject were aired in prime time by major broadcasters.

Scolding the Government While Pointing at Japan

Most of China’s 1.3 billion people have never traveled abroad, and a diet of anti-Japanese dramas from morning to night is fostering popular animosity toward Japan. Recently when the Sasakawa Japan-China Friendship Fund selected 20 students from provincial universities in China to participate in a program to visit Japan and study Japanese, some parents declared that they were unwilling to let their precious only children go to “dangerous” Japan. I wrote letters to persuade them that Japan is safe, and the program is now slated to go ahead as scheduled this August, but this development gave me an additional reminder of the major impact that the anti-Japanese propaganda is having.

Even so, the Chinese authorities cannot handle all the discontent that has built up within the country just by making people focus their negative energy outward. Demonstrations and protests are now occurring in China at the extraordinary pace of 200,000 a year. This indicates the high level of popular dissatisfaction, which is directed less at Japan than at problems like income inequality, pollution, and the expropriation of land. Anti-Japanese demonstrations, while taking the form of attacks on Japanese businesses and boycotts of Japanese goods, have to a large extent actually been expressions of discontent not so much with Japan as with the Chinese government—in line with the old Chinese saying “Scold the locust while pointing at the mulberry.” It is ironic that a Communist government, whose ideology aims to achieve social equality, is being rocked by discontent arising from the gap between rich and poor and the pursuit of illicit gains by those in power.

Building a Strategic Relationship of Mutual Benefit

For the past 30 years China’s leaders have described the relationship between their country and Japan as that of “neighbors separated only by a strip of water” and stressed that it is one of the most important bilateral relationships. Persistent anti-Japanese propaganda amounts to an effort to force these close neighbors apart, and the current administration’s call for “great revival of the Chinese nation” could easily lead to a narrow form of nationalism that would restrict its policy options.

In this age of ongoing globalization, China cannot go it alone in the world. China and Japan should aim to build a future-oriented relationship through dialogue. Prime Minister Abe Shinzō has declared that Japan’s door to dialogue with China is always open. The people of Asia—and indeed, of the entire world—hope to see stability in Sino-Japanese relations.

 (Translated from an article published in Sankei Shimbun, on July 1, 2013.)

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Japan’s special envoy for national reconciliation in Myanmar and the chairman of the Nippon Foundation. Born in Tokyo in 1939. Graduated from Meiji University, where he studied political economy. As WHO goodwill ambassador for leprosy elimination, is active in global efforts to eradicate the disease. For detailed information, see his profile here.

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