For those who missed the “Voldemort Wars” between the Chinese and Japanese ambassadors to the UK this past week, China’s ambassador Liu Xiaoming, in a piece in The Telegraph, compared Japan’s militarism to Lord Voldemort — the same He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named from the Harry Potter series. Liu said the “Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo is a kind of horcrux, representing the darkest parts of that nation’s soul.” Japan’s ambassador, Keiichi Hayashi, struck back with his own accusation that China risked playing “the role of Voldemort.” At which point, China, somehow, became sorely offended, with Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying calling Hayashi’s remarks “ignorant, irrational and arrogant.”
Though it’s not uncommon for Sino-Japanese relations to devolve into name-calling, it is rarely so hilarious. The Chinese public are having a bit of fun with the idea, and it has drawn more than a few jeers. At The World of Chinese, Weijing Zhu comments: “If we follow Liu’s logic, Japanese militarists are probably the Death Eaters, and to defeat Japanese militarism, peace-makers would need to wage a war against the Death Eaters, find the rest of Japan’s horcruxes, and destroy them.” She adds, “Who would be Neville Longbottom in this picture?”
But the bigger story is the PR war between China and Japan, a war China is doomed to lose. China may be able to intimidate militarily, isolate diplomatically, and bully financially, but in the battle for public opinion, the Middle Kingdom — for all the money and influence in the world — doesn’t have a hope.
What must be mentioned first — because it often is in China — is that China’s arguments about and against Japan are hopelessly stuck over half a century in the past. Japan’s failure to apologize fully for atrocities committed in the Second World War is at the top of China’s complaint list. It’s especially sad that relations get hung up on this point because Japan has apologized (several times, all rejected for various reasons). Indeed, Hayashi apologized, soberly and seriously, in the offending Voldemort piece in The Telegraph. However, the visit to the shrine drew the conversation back into the historical gutter where it’s likely to stay, leading the state media of China to compare it to, “paying homage to criminals like Hitler and Goebbels.”
The lumbering brute of China’s state media is uncompromising, unchanging and increasingly serves to hurt China’s arguments and status. A free press, though not without downsides, allows for more nuance and debate, and thus more credibility. This nuance is needed in the realm of international opinion, especially in Asia, where Japan is likely to get sympathy from any of the other countries that also have island and border spats with China. While this may sound like a small thing, China has and has had serious, bitter border disputes with many — if not most — of its neighbors, including India, Bhutan, South Korea, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, and, of course, Taiwan. While these other countries can speak with varied voices on these extraordinarily complex issues, China is stuck with one, droning government voice of nationalism. In short, even if China makes a valid argument and has the best possible reasoning, it’s cut short because the extremely confrontational source is beyond suspect.
On a global scale, China’s political standings hurt its PR war immeasurably. In Hayashi’s Telegraph piece, for example, he made the claim that “Japan’s record over the past 68 years shows the strength of its democracy … Such values are so deeply ingrained in Japan that a visit to a shrine cannot undo them.” China can not, nor would it want to, make such claims. China’s neo-authoritarianism — hyped in two Global Times op-eds on Thursday — is not an ideal that draws on the themes of empathy.
Japan intends to paint China as an anti-democracy force, and it’s an argument they win. Japan simply counts on China to make the case for them. China takes great care in identifying any unrest in any of the democratic countries around the world. Incidents from Thailand’s recent troubles to the Arab Spring are juxtaposed with China’s own stability. All of this comes as the idea of democracy is simultaneously battered and supported under the CCP — supported as an idea and battered as an option. The Global Times ran an op-ed piece on Thursday called, “‘Iron fist’ at top needed to ensure proper democracy.” The piece, based on an interview with Xiao Gongqin, a professor of history at the Shanghai Normal University, said, “Ideally, after decades of neo-authoritarianism reforms, most social problems will be eliminated, extreme thoughts such as pro-left and pro-right will be marginalized, and the Chinese people will reach a consensus that the country led by the Party will eventually achieve prosperity and democracy. At that time, we can talk about democracy in a real sense.”
Though one could argue (as Eric X. Li does) that the Chinese system is simply better than any other system given the recent three decades of success, this point is unlikely to gain China ground in the world of global public opinion. Many countries in Asia are democracies — some stable, some not, but almost none are ready to throw in the towel in exchange for a politburo. So when it comes to painting one country as a danger to the region, Japan has an easy job. Painting China’s government-enforced pragmatism as anti-democracy is an easy case to make, and it has the added benefit of being true — at least in part.
China even acknowledges this, albeit only as filthy Japanese trickery, according to a state media editorial: “Values are Japan’s favorite platform to play tricks. It tries every means to depict the Sino-Japanese conflicts as efforts to fight against an authoritarian nation. In this way it can win back sympathy from the Western mainstream media.” Yes, it can. China’s attempts to depict Shinzo Abe as a rising, imperialist military God-King are less successful with modern, democratic nations.
Recently, China’s tabloids have been decrying Japan’s “state apparatus” as having a “very strong capacity in public opinion warfare.” This complaint is a bit strange considering the untold amounts of money China has put into its many — but unfortunately not varied — media outlets. Massive entities like China Radio International even broadcast in Esperanto. China is desperate for the world to hear its side, but the masters behind China’s soft power push didn’t count on how many would listen and not like what they were hearing.
This isn’t to say China’s international opinion problem is insurmountable. China has the brains and resources to change perceptions, it just doesn’t have a voice of depth or credibility. In the end, name-calling and mutual claims of militarism and nationalism (not to mention the shrine visit) hurt Japan’s interests in the realm of diplomacy and international opinion. But China has an altogether bigger image problem, a genuine problem that not even references to adolescent fiction can help.