Liz Carter senior contributor

In China, Anti-Japan Sentiment a Double-Edged Sword

Japanese Prisoners of War at Guam, with bowed heads after hearing Emperor Hirohito make announcement of Japan's unconditional surrender on August 15, 1945. (National Archives and Records Administration)
Japanese Prisoners of War at Guam, with bowed heads after hearing Emperor Hirohito make announcement of Japan’s unconditional surrender on August 15, 1945. (National Archives and Records Administration)

“On this day in 1945, Japan announced unconditional surrender.” The official account of China Central Television posted this information on Weibo, one of China’s largest social media platforms, and it quickly spread. Three trending posts, with a combined 236,000 retweets, identified the day’s significance and emphasized the number of Chinese who had been wounded and killed during the war – 35 million by China’s official estimates.

Within an hour, the hashtag “#NeverForgetNationalHumiliation勿忘国耻“ began to trend, drawing a mix of patriotism, anger, and confusion. User @谭兵林 asked, “How can you not mention to whom the Japanese surrendered?” Others criticized the appropriation of a day thought to be a victory to remember a period of national humiliation: “Many people have told me that today is a day of national humiliation,” wrote @Cepheus的旁座-ELF, “but…isn’t today the day Japan surrendered? How can Japan surrendering be a day of national humiliation?”

The current #1 post on Weibo includes this image from CCTV. It says "35 million compatriots dead." (Via Weibo/fair use)
The current #1 post on Weibo includes this image from CCTV. It says “35 million compatriots dead.” (Via Weibo/fair use)

How much of this anti-Japanese sentiment is real, and how much manufactured? All three trending articles were posted by state-run media, with some users complaining that “fifty-cent party” users – those alleged to write pro-government posts for money – played a role in spreading and promoting the anti-Japan comments. Yet much of the reaction was organic. In last year’s round of anti-Japan protests, Chinese authorities sought to promote such protests, but also control them, fearing public anger might spiral out of control. While the government may be seeking to use public sentiment, perhaps as a distraction from domestic issues, Chinese dissatisfaction with Japan is not entirely manufactured: it has sharply increased over the last year, while public support for Japan among Chinese has fallen 12 percentage points over the last five years, according to a recent Pew survey.

In particular, Japanese officials’ annual visit to Yasukuni, the shrine memorializing Japanese soldiers who fought in the Second World War, has angered Chinese. One Weibo user wrote, “When I saw on TV that the number of Japanese who visited the Yasukuni Shrine was double that of last year, I felt myself become suddenly enraged.” Many others joined in, calling for an attack on Japan or a boycott of Japanese goods.

Some version of the Yasukuni Shrine controversy replays itself between China and Japan every year, but tensions between the two countries have been especially raw of late. Last year, violent protests erupted throughout China as Japan announced it was nationalizing a chain of islands, known by Japan as the Senkaku and China as the Diaoyu. A survey conducted annually since 2005 showed that last year, 92.8% of Chinese and 90.1% of Japanese have “unfavorable feelings” toward the other’s country, with 77.6% of Chinese citing the aforementioned dispute as the main motivating factor.

Japan’s recent political moves – including the move to nationalize the islands – have added fuel to an already-burning fire. The Chinese education system has long incorporated teachings about Japanese atrocities during World War II and encouraged negative feelings toward the country. But this anti-Japanese sentiment is not simply an expression of regret for the past. As long-time China watchers Orville Schell and John Delury wrote in their new book, Wealth and Power:

Foreign superiority [as remembered in the Opium Wars, colonization, and Japanese occupation] may have been humiliating and shameful, but it also served as a sharp goad urging Chinese to sacrifice for all the various reform movements and revolutions that came to be launched as a way to remove the stigma of their shame.

Yet dissatisfaction with Japan no longer translates as cleanly as it once did into patriotic support of China’s own government. Wrote one Weibo user, “After 1949 [when the People’s Republic of China was founded], how many died from causes besides war? Who will remember them?49年后,非战争原因亡死的人又有多少呢?谁又来记念呢?Another was more explicit: “More than 20 million were killed during the Cultural Revolution. Over 10 million starved during the Great Leap Forward.文化大革命2000多万人被整死。大跃进上千万百姓被饿死。

Increasingly, driven by greater information transparency and reforms decades in the making, many Chinese are rejecting the selective memory of official media, and the idea that patriotism precludes criticism of the government. As user @TaoTao小莹 wrote:

Never forget national humiliation. We must rejuvenate China. Let the ordinary people eat food they don’t need to worry about. Make education universally available. Ensure that officials truly serve the people. Raise the overall quality of life for the people. Then we can go back to talking about attacking Japan, OK?

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Liz Carter

Liz Carter is a DC-based China-watcher and the author and translator of a number of Chinese-English textbooks available on amazon.cn. She and her cat Desmond relocated to DC from Beijing, where she studied contemporary Chinese literature at Peking University, after learning that HBO was planning to adapt Game of Thrones for television. She writes at abigenoughforest.com and tweets from @withoutdoing.
  • K

    Nice well-balanced article. I would add that the increased negativity toward Japan in recent years is also a result of the educational reforms implemented by the Jiang Zemin administration, which placed considerable emphasis on nationalism and the vilification of Japan in history curricula.

  • Fed Up

    China’s perception of the outside world is really a mess. Even when Chinese emigrate, they still call residents of their host country “foreigners” :)

    Selective memory indeed. The Western powers did some terrible things to China…but they also defended China against the Japanese. But, just like the famine, Great Leap, Cultural Revolution and 6/4, it doesn’t fit with the CCP’s narrative as the “one true saviour of China”

    What a mess. There’s a saying that you get the government you deserve. Can’t think what the Chinese have done to get a government as lousy as this one.

    • Mishmael

      The Chinese government is not doing anything particularily different from the nationalist revisionism of Japan. There is nothing really ominous with the CCP promoting selective views of history, since EVERYBODY does it. The Chinese version just so happens to coincide with enough governance successes, like lifting 400 million people out of poverty, to actually be somewhat credible. The CCP can say what it wants, but it is their actions which earn them support. And last I checked, they have a pretty large base of support. Also, I dont really believe that Chinese people today actually judge the CCP based upon what cadres in the 1950s-1970s were doing.

      The West couldnt care less about the welfare of the Chinese people. They were protecting their guy in Chongqing, Chiang Kaishek. The Americans chose not to fight Japan on mainland China. They couldn’t even be bothered to liberate all of Korea. It was the Russians who liberated more Chinese from Japanese rule than Americans. Furthermore,if America really did care about China’s people, it would not have so quickly sided with men like Shiro Ishi, who ran unit 731, and countless others like him who were responsible for heinous war crimes and crimes against humanity, perpetrated against Chinese.

      There is nothing negative implied in the term “laowai.” If you chose to take offense then thats your problem. Maybe to you “foreigner” is an insult, but trust me when I say that there are other, better terms to denigrate foreigners. Many Chinese also use “laowai” simply to mean “white people.” Take it or leave it.

      • Tony in Guangzhou

        @ Mishmael, you write “There is nothing negative implied in the term “laowai.”"….I’d disagree as it all depends in what context it is used. I live in China and hear the term used to describe me a lot (& Weiguoren/Guilou). I don’t take offence to it but do realise, with my basic Chinese, that it is sometimes used in a derogatory way against me. I just ignore it.

        What the other poster (Fed up) was trying to point out, which I think you conveniently ignored, is that even when Chinese citizens move to other countries they still call the citizens of those countries “foreigners” in their own land, without realising or thinking that they are now the “foreigners”. I think the big difference here for me is that when I talk about “foreigners” I refer to them as American, German, Korean, Chinese, etc, not just use the generic term “foreigner”. The way I look at it is that years of government propaganda/centuries of isolation has given a majority of Chinese people the outlook that there is China and not-China in the world. There seems to me to be far too much nationalist sentiment created by the CCP which then translates into negative feelings for other countries/peoples.

        I’ve also heard laowai used to refer to all “foreigners”, not just white skinned people. I’ve also seen it used very derogatively more with darker skinned people compared to white skinned people in China.

        • saf

          I don’t know what role government “propaganda” played in this whole “China/Laowai” dichotomy, but I suppose there’s some truth behind a perception of Chinese “exceptionalism,” not in a hegemonic sense, but in a cultural-national sense. Willful isolation (relative to Europe) in late Imperial China was to blame for this later constructed identity, but it also prevented China from going out into the world and violently molding most of it in its own image. Think about the cultural/historical distance between China and much of the rest of the world which, thanks largely to colonialism, has been Europeanized to different degrees. The Americas, Africa, Oceania and even the Indian Subcontinent conduct their businesses in English, French, Portuguese and Spanish and deal in Western norms. Although China has long joined the Westphalian order (begrudgingly at first), it would certainly be a mistake to assume that the various states outside China are equally distinct from each other as they are from China. I’m not here trying to rehash the Clash of Civilizations, but merely to point out that different perceptions of state and identity can oftentimes contribute to misunderstanding and misjudgment. Without excusing deliberate attempts to denigrate when using terms like “laowai,” these socio-linguistic phenomena should certainly be understood in the complex context that is China’s relationship with the outside world.

          Also as a point of clarification: The Yasukuni Jinja doesn’t just “memorializ[e] Japanese soldiers who fought in the Second World War,” being a state-affiliated religious institution, it essentially deifies a cohort that includes a number of convicted war criminals.

        • Cedrik Thibert

          I think gui zi is much nicer term.

      • blaine

        why do you expect america to care about china? america cares about americans and american interests. does the chinese govt care about chinese people?

      • ClausRasmussen

        I fully agree with your first paragraph. Second paragraph however…

        >> The West couldn’t care less about the welfare of the Chinese people


        USA was sympathetic to China in the period following the conclusion of the Boxer Rebellion and until CCPs victory in the Civil War. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sino-American_relations#Open_Door_Policy

        During the Second World War, USA had airplanes stationed in China. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/China_Burma_India_Theater .

        USA didn’t send more troops because the whole Japanese fleet was sitting between China and USA. Map: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Second_world_war_asia_1937-1942_map_en6.png

        USA also didn’t occupy all of Korea because they agreed with the Russians to split the country (like Germany). Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Division_of_Korea

        USA did treat Japan too lightly after the War, but they also managed to create a modern, democratic, and wealthy country out of the smoking ruins of the previous military dictatorship. China had to endure a few decades more of self inflicted disasters before she finally got on the right track when Deng Xiaoping rose to power.

        • blaine

          u.s. gave japan, and germany, billions of industry aid because of the cold war. once again, u.s. cares about u.s. interests. and that shifts depending on the era.

          • ClausRasmussen

            Yeah. And the Germans and the Japanese people are crying day and night because USA only cares for its own interests

        • Harry Lee

          a great list of sources there, also talking about selective history

          • Cedrik Thibert

            It’s true USA has done a lot for China. USA helped China tremendously for the modernisation of China. Off course, every country cares about their own interests, isn’t China not doing the same thing? It would be unfair to say USA doesn’t care about China, China is pretty much the cash cow of USA now.