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A View on Nationalism

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China Power

A View on Nationalism

Nationalism in Japan is confined mostly to the elites, but is more broad-based in China, says academic Gui Yongtao.

Following is an interview with Gui Yongtao, Associate Professor at Peking University's School of International Studies, on China-Japan relations. This is the first of a series of interviews conducted on behalf of partner site the Lowy Interpreter by Peter Martin and David Cohen.

Mu Haishi from China asks: Is Japan to blame for the history problem?

I would say yes, from the Chinese perspective. But as a scholar, I would say that you can’t expect people to sincerely believe that they are responsible for crimes committed by their grandfathers. There are two parts — justice, and reconciliation. And this should have been pursed right after the war.

But because of the Cold War, the generation that should have dealt with this didn’t do so. The government has the responsibility to do that, but I would say the Japanese government is too late to do this.

So if you ask who is to blame, the Japanese government is still to blame. But the general public? Not really. People say they don't have any knowledge of history, but Americans or others are much like that. With the older generation, because they are conservative, anti-Communist, anti-China, it's more complicated.

Amy King at Oxford University asks: Is the Japanese 'triple disaster' likely to be a game-changer for China-Japan relations?

In terms of Sino-Japanese relations, I don't like to say so, but it's become an opportunity to restore the official relationship. Since last year's ship collision incident in September, China suspended ministerial-level exchanges with Japan. But this provided an opportunity, and the Chinese leadership has restored its relationship, basically to pre-September last year.

So nationalists think the game should change, they think that ‘before, we could not say this or do that because we were weak. Now we are stronger and you should talk to us differently.’ So some may expect that Japan will voluntarily change its way of dealing with China because it’s no longer so much stronger. I’m personally not of this view, but I've heard some scholars expressing this expectation.

Aidan Dullard asks: Is the decision to send aid to tsunami-affected Japan popular in China? What have been some of the reactions of the so-called 'angry youth' nationalists?

There are a very small number of people on the Internet saying we shouldn’t give any aid to Japan, because that's our former enemy, and they could use this aid to build weapons. But that’s not influential at all. Similarly, South Korea also has seen similar responses.

This time, not only the government but also the people seem to be very active in sending aid. The Global Times, a nationalist newspaper, took the lead in advocating aid to Japan. Right after the earthquake, they published a letter signed by a hundred scholars, including me, calling for the public to send aid to Japan. But to tell you the truth, I myself was sort of concerned about the feedback to this sort of aid to Japan. I was concerned that people would criticize my sort of people, saying, 'You see! Peking University professors are doing this, helping Japan!' I'm not concerned about that now, but I was then.

Alex Statman, at Stanford University, asks: At the treaty of Shimonoseki, the Chinese and Japanese negotiators acknowledged that one of the grounds for peace should be that the two nations 'have the same written language.’ Is there any sense in which people today might say something similar: that Chinese and Japanese language and culture are still so similar as to form a potential basis for long-term diplomatic friendship or cooperation?

In the 1980s, that was very much a conducive factor, because the Japanese elites had a very good education about Chinese traditional culture. One of China's favourite Japanese prime ministers, Ohira, could write poetry in Chinese. When he came to China, he saw the Great Wall, and he was so moved he wrote a poem about it in ancient Chinese. But that's that generation, and in that generation your education in traditional culture showed your status. But in the younger generation, I would say not necessarily.

I would say that things have changed. And one extreme is that the last prime minister before one, Taro Aso, he isn’t young, but he's a fan of manga. You even can’t find any word in Japanese kana in manga, it's pictures. But the problem is that after he became prime minister, he mispronounced a Chinese character in public, a character that should be recognized even by primary school students. But generally speaking, we still feel, not intentionally, but we still feel some closeness because when Chinese people or Japanese people go to the other country, they feel comfortable, even if they don’t speak a word of the other language. They can go anywhere just looking at the signs, they can read the menu.

Colin Feehan, from the United States, asks: Which would be more destabilizing for Sino-Japanese relations:  heightened nationalism in Japan or in China?

On the Japanese side, it's not necessarily nationalism, but their fear or uneasiness about the rising power of China. In the Chinese case, nationalism is general, among the public and the elite, and in many cases it can be directed against Japan. And in the Japanese case, only a very small set of political elites, and some commentators and scholars, have strong nationalism. But the public, not really.

But there is a strain of nationalism or a conservative hard-line, just like the Americans have in Washington DC. It's sometimes very influential, depending on circumstances. If the conservative elites can utilize these events to flare up nationalism, the general public will follow that direction. But one year later, they simply return to the centre.

But that's probably short-term, so generally I would say Chinese nationalism.


The original version of this article appeared here.