For China and Japan: The Perfect Distraction?
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For China and Japan: The Perfect Distraction?

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China has some big problems, and some not-so-big problems. Among the big problems, we might list a disturbing decline in economic confidence; an index of environmental woes ranging from polluted air to expanding deserts; demographic and social imbalances that threaten to tear the country apart; a corrupt political class that is above the law; and a crisis of social morality. Among the not-so-big problems, we might list an argument with Japan over the ownership of a handful of tiny islands.

Japan also has some big problems, and some not-so-big problems. Among the big problems, we could mention an economy that is projected to produce one of the weakest growth rates anywhere on Earth between now and 2050; an energy crisis stemming from a determination to dispense with the country’s probably indispensable nuclear power industry; an unsustainably low birth rate; a dying defense industry whose stagnation poses a threat to national security; and, more generally, a lonely drift into the geostrategic periphery. Among the lesser problems, we could talk about those tiny islands again.

It might seem absurd, in light of those other matters, that the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute has captured the public imagination to the point where these islands, which virtually nobody in either country has ever laid eyes on, now tops the agenda in both China and Japan (just as similar disputes continue to dominate the headlines in places like the Philippines, another country that arguably has bigger problems). Of course, the islands do have real value: their owners are entitled to claim fishing grounds and undersea resources in addition to the land itself. But the resources are not the things that most Chinese and Japanese people consider important.

Something strange has happened: Symbolism has trumped realism in East Asia’s international discourse. Ordinary people (some of them, anyway) are more agitated about abstractions – national pride, identity and interpretations of history – than about bread-and-butter issues.

These self-inflicted mind games can be explained in part by the manipulation of nationalism both by governments and the media. In China, the Communist Party has hitched its legitimacy to issues of national sovereignty. This means two things: that it makes mountains out of territorial molehills; and that it purposefully inflates sovereignty issues in the national consciousness as a means of reinforcing its own perceived relevance. The Chinese media are not the government, but they often serve as a crude megaphone for official policy, both amplifying and simplifying Beijing’s private discussion for public consumption. As such, Chinese nationalism has been turned into an endorsement of the Party, just as the defense of Diaoyu – the idea, if not the real island – has become the Party’s raison d’etre.

Of course, Chinese people aren’t allowed to protest publicly about other issues, so it isn’t all that surprising that they should have leapt at the opportunity to protest about this one. And they certainly do hate Japan – the idea, if not the real place. In Japan, where there are other things to complain about, hearts are not beating quite so fast over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. But politicians who see nationalism as a vote-winner are doing what they can to quicken pulses. It’s a sorry advert for democracy when Japanese politicians play the nationalism card with all the cynicism of their Chinese counterparts.  

It would be better for Beijing and Tokyo to hand the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute over to their diplomats and the United Nations for quiet, sensible resolution, and to tell their citizens the truth: that China and Japan have more important things to worry about; and that the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute is a work of the imagination. 

Comments
13
Cam
September 20, 2012 at 21:53

"Japan is doomed, depending on how China handles this situation."
Really? talking points?
 
Instead of talking tough, what people see so far, the Chinese sent a dozen ships sailing around Senkaku, the Japanese coastguard hollered “this is Japanese water, get lost!”, then those Chinese ships disappeared as fast as they can.

aditvp
September 19, 2012 at 07:40

Symbolism trumping realism should not be surprising to anyone.
The largest democracy in the world is a classic example of such symbolism.
Real issues of literacy, jobs, corruption, inflation, roads are trumped by enthic, religious and other such leviathans regularly before major elections.  The question we should be asking is whether the changing demography in such nations presents a danger of being mislead into hyper nationalism and conflict or cause fundamental changes into stable polities.

Mike
September 19, 2012 at 06:32

The Chinese communist party never tells atrocities done by themselves to chinese people during the civil war, and put everything on Japanese. The current status shows chinese people are fully under control of their cummunist propaganda and it may take a long time for them to come over it. 

Kom
September 19, 2012 at 03:56

I'm afraid so, too.

James
September 18, 2012 at 22:26

Well said. Now both governments have an execuse for their bad performance on economy this year.  Each of them can just say that the cause of the economy failure is the other side.  Briliant governments.
 
 

C
September 18, 2012 at 16:32

Of course, because no country holds a grudge like China.

C
September 18, 2012 at 16:31

It is Chinese complacency and arrogance that led to its 'humiliations' and it seems that the country has learned nothing from all this and instead tries to shift the blame for its own failures and defeats on others. Thus, China is doomed to repeatedly suffer the same humilations, and all by its own hand.

riddel
September 17, 2012 at 22:34

Could it be that the rape torture and massacres the Chinese suffered at the hands of the Japanese during world war 2 figure into this? 

talking points
September 17, 2012 at 22:12

The symbolism is huge. To China, it goes back to 1895, when China suffered a humiliating defeat, that was when China lost Diaoyu islands. To Japan, it means the legitimization of its imperial past, it will be a "normal" country.
Japan is doomed, depending on how China handles this situation.
 

benne4frame
September 17, 2012 at 22:12

Lovely thought…..though given the fact that both government are using the issue to divert real domestic problems respectively I don't see the spat will die down soon. At least not until next year I believe in the worse case scenario.

STL
September 17, 2012 at 18:40

This or something like it should be read to learn what is really going on.
Death by China: Confronting the Dragon – A Global Call to Action is a non-fiction book by economics professor Peter Navarro and Greg Autry that chronicles, "From currency manipulation and abusive trade policies, to slave labor and deadly consumer products",[ the alleged threats to global economic stability and world peace posed by China's "corrupt and ruthless" governing Communist Party.
The book has been translated into Japanese, Vietnamese, and Korean.

Jaques666
September 17, 2012 at 17:39

Brilliant incisive comment Joe. You have totally undermined anything the author says by pointing out that he is American and that as Americans do something, China and Japan can't do the same thing.

Joe
September 17, 2012 at 15:18

No you wrong
its you yanks who use war and 9/11 to distract people

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