Last week, anti-Japanese protests swept nearly a dozen Chinese cities. Angry demonstrators overturned Toyotas while Japanese restaurants and businesses were vandalized. In the central Chinese city of Chengdu, where thousands protested, some banners declared, “Even if China is covered with graves, we must kill all Japanese!”
The immediate cause for the demonstrations was a flare-up over a few disputed, uninhabited islands controlled by Japan. (China calls them the Diaoyus; Japan calls them the Senkakus). On Aug. 15, Chinese nationalists landed and planted flags on the islands before being deported. Japanese nationalists retaliated by swimming ashore from nearby boats, further inflaming Chinese passions.
The rage of China’s crowds is genuine, and its roots lie in China’s nationalist ideology. The Chinese Communist Party uses its educational and propaganda systems to socialize citizens into a particular understanding of history. Maoist triumphalism has been eclipsed since the mid-1990s by a new “victim narrative” about Chinese suffering.
To most Chinese, the Japanese are “devils,” and the hatred reaches far into the past — from China’s humiliating loss in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-5 to World War II-era atrocities like the Rape of Nanking. Anti-Japanese anger has both ethical and visceral dimensions, sustaining it unlike other more fleeting forms of nationalism.
And although Chinese nationalist rage is primarily aimed at Japan, it is also directed toward the United States. As Chinese nationalists see it, America is the cause of China’s continuing problems with both Taiwan and Japan. If it were not for the “American imperialists” inserting the United States Seventh Fleet in the Taiwan Strait during the Korean War, they say, Taiwan would long ago have been reunified with mainland China, erasing that “national humiliation.” And Japan’s continuing impertinence is also America’s fault: the United States’ alliance with Japan gives Japanese nationalists the gumption to defy a rising China.
The statements of American politicians further stoke Chinese anger at the United States. Speaking in Ohio late last week, the presumptive Republican vice-presidential nominee, Paul D. Ryan, accused China of stealing intellectual property, blocking access to its markets and manipulating the exchange rate. “President Obama promised he would stop these practices,” Mr. Ryan declared. “He said he’d go to the mat with China. Instead, they’re treating him like a doormat. We’re not going to let that happen.”
Mr. Ryan’s views echo those of Mitt Romney, who has promised if elected to declare China a “currency manipulator.” This could lead to punitive tariffs on Chinese imports and a possible trade war.
There is a long history of challengers using China to attack incumbents during presidential elections. Most famously, in 1992, Bill Clinton accused President George Bush of coddling the “butchers of Beijing” following the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.
While there is some antipathy toward China in the Democratic Party, particularly among labor unions and human rights activists, anti-Chinese sentiment these days comes mostly from the right. Economic conservatives don’t like the income redistribution and government regulation they associate with socialism; the Christian right fears the atheism of “Godless” Communism; and libertarians don’t like any government at all, let alone the authoritarian government of China.
China-bashing will therefore be good election year politics for the Romney-Ryan ticket. But it will be bad for America’s relations with China and could undermine our national security. Many Chinese are already suspicious of American intentions, and ideologically driven rhetoric from across the Pacific will only confirm their worst fears.
Worse, the Communist Party is currently undergoing its own leadership transition, and it is happening at a time when popular nationalism is bringing people into the streets. Because the party bases its legitimacy in large part on its nationalist credentials, no party leader is likely to quiet the nationalists until the new leadership is finalized.
Lacking a secure foundation of mutual trust, American-Chinese relations today remain susceptible to the random accidents of history that have plagued them in the past. In 1999, the mistaken NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Serbia, killed three and led to huge anti-American protests across China. And in 2001, the collision between a Chinese jet and an American surveillance plane led to a Chinese pilot’s death and an American crew’s being detained for two weeks.
If comparable accidents occur during this fall’s leadership transitions in both countries, popular pressure for more confrontational policies in both China and the United States will be more difficult to contain — and will increase the likelihood of conflict in Asia.
Peter Hays Gries is a professor of international and area studies at the University of Oklahoma and the director of its Institute for U.S.-China Issues.