Virtual Possibilities: China and the Internet: The Genie Is Out of the Chinese Bottle

The Asian Wall Street Journal

>REVIEW & OUTLOOK (Editorial) —
The fact that millions of Chinese have gathered online to protest Japan’s bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council will come as no surprise to anyone who has spent more than 10 minutes on the mainland.Anti-Japanese sentiment permeates all levels of society.
The wild card in this equation is the Chinese Communist Party, which has condoned this activity. If the party now tries to shove the genie back into the bottle, it would be acting too late to suppress the
image of rabid nationalism that has been put on display.
The online petition originated from several overseas Web sites, but has spread throughout the mainland, where major Web portals such as such as Sina, Sohu and Netease were reported as having surpassed 10 million signatures. Another Chinese Web site,, boasted over 16
million signatures as of earlier this week, leading to estimates that this could be the largest Internet mobilization in China’s history.
Anti-Japanese activist Lu Yunfei has said that he intends to present a petition with 20 million signatures to the United Nations this summer. These staggering numbers don’t necessarily represent the growth of anti-Japanese sentiment — though that could indeed be taking place. Another explanation is that the spread of the Internet in China has
given the people a freedom of virtual assembly and mobilization they
didn’t previously have at their disposal, for better or for worse.
Much of the anti-Japanese sentiment in China is a product of Communist education that relied on stirring up anti-Japanese sentiment as a way to legitimize the party’s rule. The party, of course, had at its disposal resentment of Japan’s World War II behavior, and perhaps more importantly, the fact that many Chinese see Japan as refusing to acknowledge its wartime treatment of China. But now the rage has taken on a life of its own. In a further twist, public resentment now even threatens to be aimed at the government — for not being tough enough on the Japanese.
With Sino-Japanese economic relations thriving, well-mobilized anti-Japanese vitriol, especially of the type that cannot be controlled, may prove to be a thorn in the side of relatively pragmatic leaders
Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao. This appeared to be the case last fall, when another nationalistic mainland Web site hosted a petition opposing the railway ministry’s decision to grant a bullet-train contract to
Japanese companies without a public hearing. The government responded to the site’s growing popularity and ability to mobilize opinion by shutting it down. Before it was shut down, the petition had obtained over 68,000 signatures.
It is an open question whether the government will decide, as it has in the past, to shut down the current petition when it seems to be getting “out of control.” But thus far, the mainstream media appears to be condoning the petition. An article by the state-run China Daily gave directions to Web sites where people can sign their names, and an editorial cartoon yesterday featured a Hitler-mustached samurai trying to use a huge bag of yen to buy a seat in the UNSC.
An editorial posted on the Chinese-language People’s Daily Web site concluded that even though all this online activity wasn’t necessarily going to prevent Japan from joining the UNSC, it would be a victory if it could at least bring Japan’s “shameless behavior” as well as the Chinese people’s “request for justice” to the world’s attention. The editorial ended with the line, “this obviously is only a beginning.”
Perhaps Beijing views this particular online campaign as in its own interest, but it could regret this attitude when the same political resentment bleeds into the economic sphere. This is what happened
with the bullet-train protests, and this time around there are Chinese voices on the Internet calling for the boycott of Japanese products. If the current online activity appears to be getting out of control then it is likely the government will respond the way it has in the past: by shutting down Web sites.
This, of course, would be completely missing the point. If Beijing does aspire to finally soothe the public’s anti-Japanese antagonism, then it will require more proactive measures to both educate the people as well as create good will between the two neighbors. Tokyo’s “ignore it and
it will go away” attitude toward China’s anti-Japanese sentiment has only exacerbated the problem. But it bears repeating that Japan’s excesses took place 60 years ago, and since then Japan has been a model citizen to its neighbors and its people. Would that the same could be said for
some other Asian nations.
It would be in Beijing’s interest to recognize that whatever role it has played in stirring up anti-Japanese rage not only threatens to damage an important economic relationship, but also that continuing to play the “national humiliation” card will do little to help China become
recognized as a constructive member of the world community.
Copyright (c) 2005 Dow Jones and Company, Inc.

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