China has long criticized Japan over the issue of the ALPS treated water release at Fukushima. Initially, South Korea, parts of Taiwan, and Pacific Island countries held similar positions to China, but Japan received an IAEA mission that confirmed the safety of the treated water in July 2023, followed by a South Korean investigation team, which likewise approved the water’s stability. With that, opposition to the release of treated water has eased both in the international community and within Japan.
There are several reasons why China has zeroed in on the treated water issue. One is that by criticizing the developed country Japan for environmental problems and other issues that have to do with international standards, China is trying to show that it is the developed countries that are lagging, and that the existing world order that they lead cannot solve the world’s problems. Another reason might be that Beijing is trying to find new areas for criticizing Japan, replacing the historical perception issue.
In late August, China came out strongly against the release of treated water and launched a program of vigorous propaganda for both domestic and overseas consumption. Very possibly mobilized by the Publicity Department of the China Central Committee of the Communist Party, mainstream media outlets began criticizing Japan in unison, claiming that the “contaminated water” from Fukushima would spread to the entirety of the Pacific Ocean and eventually to the East China Sea, the South China Sea, the Yellow Sea, and the Bohai Bay.
So why did China object so strongly in late August? One reason is that it couldn’t backtrack. This is also related to the fact that it is extremely difficult for the Chinese government to admit error in its own propaganda domestically. However, an inability to alter course is not the only factor.
Especially noteworthy are Chinese President Xi Jinping’s comments about the ecological environment. This is an area of special interest for his administration, which also views it as important in the competition with developed countries and as an area that concerns security. On July 18, Xi gave a presentation at the National Conference on Ecological and Environmental Protection, saying, “We must hold the security bottom line of building a Beautiful China, implement the holistic approach to national security, actively and effectively respond to various risks and challenges, earnestly safeguard ecological security and nuclear and radiation safety, and ensure that the natural environment and conditions on which we depend for survival and development are not threatened or damaged.” It is important to note Xi’s mention of “nuclear and radiation safety” here. Xi’s words were later repeated by the minister of ecology and environment and others.
A month earlier, at the end of June, a session of the Standing Committee of the 14th National People’s Congress decided to designate August 15 as “National Ecology Day.” This day really was a day for commemorating propaganda, where “Xi Jinping’s thought on ecological civilization” was spread throughout society and educational activities were carried out. It was only about a week later that Japan went ahead and released treated water. From the Chinese perspective, Japan decided to release treated water just after the Chinese campaign on “ecological environment” had clearly cited “nuclear and radiation safety,” so this likely contributed to China not having the option to remain silent. At this time, probably with orders from the Publicity Department of the China Central Committee of the Communist Party, all major media outlets simultaneously began reporting about “contaminated water” and launched an international campaign criticizing Japan.
Toning Down the Propaganda
However, there was a limit to the effectiveness of propaganda, both at home and abroad. South Korea and the Kuomintang in Taiwan did not join in, and among the Pacific Island countries only Solomon Islands signaled that it agreed with China. Within Japan, there was some opposition to the release of the treated water, with some voicing concerns about reputational damage, but no major social movements came together. On the other hand, there were movements within China to avoid buying seafood even from coastal China, so Beijing began toning down the criticism of Japan in September.
It was on September 3 that it really became clear that Chinese criticism of Japan was no longer comprehensive. Since the inauguration of Xi’s government, this day has been officially designated as the “Victory Memorial Day for the Chinese People’s War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression” (VM Day). However, neither Xi nor the top seven were present at the commemorative event, with only Li Shulei, a member of the Political Bureau of the CCP Central Committee and head of the Publicity Department, making an appearance. Since they did not use this opportunity to criticize Japan on all fronts, it gave the impression that the Japan criticism had been toned down.
On September 6, Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, who was attending the ASEAN+3 Summit Meeting, spoke with Prime Minister Li Qiang, and the two sides shared opinions about the treated water. This suggests that both sides are willing to engage in “(direct) dialogue” to a certain degree. After this, the Manchurian Incident Memorial Day on September 18 was even more low key, without even Politburo members showing up.
That is not to say China has stopped criticizing Japan over the treated water entirely. Both the seafood embargo on Fukushima and other areas and criticism from the Chinese government are ongoing. But what is interesting is the subject of the criticism. It is no longer a large-scale campaign by the Publicity Department, but rather mostly the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, which oversees “nuclear and radiation safety” in China, and the China Atomic Energy Authority, which oversees IAEA activities. That is, it feels like criticism of Japan in the area of “ecological environment” and especially “nuclear and radiation safety” has become more limited.
Japan-China relations over the Fukushima treated water issue are somewhat confusing. The criticism of Japan is certainly not at an end, but it is more lowkey than it used to be. Here I’ve offered a tentative view on the possible reasons for the changes in the degree and nature of the criticism as well as on the background for this, as far as can be gleaned from publicly available information. Of course, developments could go in an entirely different direction in the future.