China Power

Wasserstrom: 10 Things Japanese Should Know About China

Acclaimed author on corruption, nationalism, and territorial disputes.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom, author of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, spoke yesterday at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan. A professor of Modern Chinese and World History at the University of California, Irvine, Wasserstrom is also the editor of the Journal of Asian Studies.

He spoke about the corroding relationship between China and Japan, which has reached tense new lows due to an ongoing territorial row over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and shared 10 points relevant to the Japanese.

1. Corruption is now, and long has been, as important as any other political issue in angering people in China.

Wasserstrom explained that even the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising started over allegations of official corruption. A more recent example, he said, took place earlier this month when a CCP official visited areas hit by flooding in the wake of Typhoon Fitow –wearing a pair of expensive shoes. A local farmer offered to give him a piggyback to avoid getting his fancy footwear dirty. Photos of the incident prompted so much outrage on Sina Weibo that the fashion-forward official was dismissed – a move that Wasserstrom said was to avoid seeming out of touch with the local people.

“They don’t want the anger and corruption going to the very top leaders, so they’re very quick to pick on lower-level leaders,” he said.

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2. The CCP needs popular nationalism – but also worries about it.

“When there is popular unrest based on anger at a foreign country it can very easily segue into complaints about the government not being tough enough about a foreign country or being too authoritarian at home,” Wasserstrom said. “I was in China for one outburst of popular nationalism in 1999 when NATO bombs hit the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and there were anti-American protests which I got to observe firsthand. Very quickly the government said ‘it’s good that you’re on the streets to show your patriotism – now get off the streets.’ They worried that if the students stayed on the streets that they would begin to bring up other issues. You’ll see that even with anti-Japanese protests. The government will rein them in quite quickly.”

3. Tales of past victimization matter in China – as in Japan.

Wasserstrom cited the Boxer Uprising as one example of this – Chinese consider it a period of “Chinese violence succeeded by greater violence by other countries.” He added that, “The story of victimization, of events like that, figures in some ways in China the same way that in Japan stories of ‘Yes, Japan was aggressive during World War II – but then there was Hiroshima.’”

4. Japan hasn’t always been the main country that the CCP has vilified.

“As recently as the 1950s and 1960s, Chairman Mao said that [the Chinese] shouldn’t dwell too much on the Japanese invasion and ally with countries that are in the region or that are not necessarily part of the Capitalist west,” Wasserstrom said “Anti-Japanese sentiment is both linked to [WWII], but it is also selectively ramped up at certain moments.  It has really been in the past 15 years or so that patriotic education has emphasized, of all the foreign powers that did China wrong, Japanese aggression. Before that and at other times, it was just as much about European and American aggression.”

5. Today’s China and Chiang Kai-sheck’s China have a lot in common.

“The Nationalist Party was also a Leninist organization that believed one party should rule the country and put limits on freedom of speech, viewed as quite corrupt by many people – many of these same things can now be said about the Communist Party,” said Wasserstrom. “Even parts of the personality cult of Mao is an extension and an exaggeration of things that were going on under Chiang Kai-sheck.”

He also pointed out that Confucianism is coming back to the CCP and said that one sign of change is calling its leader “president” rather than “chairman.” Xi Jinping traveling around the world with his wife as president and first lady is a “throwback” to Chiang Kai-sheck and his wife, Wasserstrom added.

6. Islands aren’t China’s only territorial dispute.

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Wasserstrom explained that islands like the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu are only one part of China’s obsession with territorial claims – India is another, albeit less reported, thorn in the CCP’s side. He mentioned a Chinese competitor to Google Earth’s mapping service being written about in the American media as a story of “business competition.” In India, however, “it was a territorial dispute story, because on the Chinese mapping program, it showed parts of India, that are disputed, as parts of China.”

7. Modernization isn’t what it used to be.

Under the rule of Deng Xiaoping, “Dissidents said you need to democratize so we can modernize. Americans said we want you to modernize because then you will democratize,” Wasserstrom stated.

“If you flash forward to the present, you see a China that is thoroughly modern, at least in parts, and it has done that without democratizing first and without democratizing after,” he said. “Protests are not by people saying ‘in order for China to modernize, it needs to do things differently,’ but rather focusing on the costs, the certain kind of often inhumane form of modernization – ‘Here’s our anger over the side effects of development.’”

8. Hope that the next Chinese leader will be a true reformer springs eternal, but…

“These hopes for a reformer emerging keep proving immature,” Wasserstrom said. “The image of Deng Xiaoping in a cowboy hat (during his historic visit to the U.S. in 1979) was overshadowed by images of the tanks on the day after the massacre in central Beijing, where Deng Xiaoping proved himself to be one more in a long line – back to Chiang Kai-sheck … of an authoritarian modernizer determined to make his country strong, also determined to hold on tightly to [power].”

9. China spends a lot on its military, but it spends even more on domestic security forces to maintain stability within its borders.

“As much as they talk about the need to be strong and to project power outside China’s borders, what the Chinese government is largely concerned about and will be increasingly concerned about – after the events of Tiananmen in recent days – is a threat to stability within its borders,” said Wasserstrom.

10. China now shares traits with Japan where it rose before and then again after WWII.

“Whenever the current status quo powers are confronted with a rising country there’s a tendency to exaggerate the threat posed by that county,” Wasserstrom stated. “Of course sometimes they can pose very real and important threats, but there’s a psychology to it that can project all of the fantasies and nightmares about what the world could be like onto whoever that rising power is … There’s this odd mix of admiration and fear that often gets projected.”

Wasserstrom’s book, China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (2009), was recently released as an updated second edition.