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Zhao Yan, The Times, and U.S. Opinion on China

Without wading into the facts surrounding the case of Zhao Yan, a Chinese researcher for The New York Times who has been locked up for two years over allegations that he leaked state secrets to the newspaper, let’s take a look at how jailing a New York Times journalist might affect U.S. opinion on China.

The Times tends to cover the trevails of its journalists with a practicedly detached tone, but an underlying indignance. We saw it during the downfall of Judy Miller. And we see it here with the much more sympathetic case of Zhao Yan. Jim Yardley writes today:

A Chinese researcher for The New York Times who has been jailed for nearly two years on charges of leaking state secrets to the newspaper may learn the verdict in his case as soon as Friday, according to one of his lawyers.

“It is very likely that they are going to announce a verdict, but there is nothing definite,” the lawyer, Mo Shaoping, said Monday.

The researcher, Zhao Yan, has denied the accusations against him, and The Times has repeatedly denied that he leaked any state secrets to the newspaper. Mr. Zhao, 44, has also said he is innocent of a second, lesser charge of fraud not related to his work for The Times.

In June, Mr. Zhao had a secret trial in which defense witnesses were forbidden from testifying. Without explanation, the authorities have delayed the issuing of a verdict.

The Times has committedly covered the case, and to the extent that it might be viewed as a shaper of U.S. news coverage and opinion, the importance of Zhao’s case has been heightened.

Even the Chinese government tacitly acknowledged the importance of the Zhao case to U.S.-China relations: the charges against him were dropped for a brief period surrounding President Hu Jintao‘s visit to the United States earlier this year. Despite much speculation about a possible release, charges were later reinstated. According to a May 15 Voice of America transcript Mo Shaoping noted that “There is no regulation in Chinese law that provides for another appeal. So, if they do not have any new evidence and they make another appeal on Zhao Yan’s case, it is illegal.”

President Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and others brought up the Zhao case directly with Chinese authorities. I wonder if this would have happened for an AP stringer, or even a Los Angeles Times researcher. It is not far-fetched to imagine that the special status of the Times and its decision to sustain coverage of the affair elevated Zhao’s case over others. But are U.S. readers paying attention? The involvement of high government officials surrounding Hu’s visit certainly brought the case to the attention of the foreign policy elite, but otherwise this is likely another case of enraptured navelgazing on the part of U.S. journalists. Who really gave a damn what happened to Judy Miller, after all?

UPDATE 2006.08.24 22:23 EDT: Zhao has been sentenced to three years in prison, Reuters reports.

Aso Says He Would Improve Ties With China and S. Korea

The same day that he declared his candidacy for LDP president (and presumably prime minister) Japanese Foreign Minister Aso Taro said he would work to improve ties with China and South Korea if he becomes prime minister. Aso is viewed as a long-shot candidate in the Sept. 20 election, with Chief Cabinet Secretary Abe Shinzo the presumptive winner.

“Having no meetings between leaders at all is a distorted form of diplomacy and we must correct this,” Aso said, according to Reuters. Aso has been more flexible than Abe on the Yasukuni Shrine question. He has even proposed that the shrine be re-nationalized as a secular war memorial. Some have remarked that the proposal is insane, but to my mind, Aso has apparently been relatively shrewd in his handling of the Yasukuni issue. By renationalizing the shrine, the government would wrest control of the symbolic site from the private Shinto authorities who enshrined the war criminals in the first place and currently administer the controversial Yushukan war museum.

Meanwhile, Aso struck a familiar nationalist note when announcing his proposal, saying “the tens of thousands of soldiers who died crying ‘Long Life to the Emperor’ filled those words with deep emotion, so I strongly pray that the emperor can visit Yasukuni.” This last statement is no personal sentiment. The special status of Yasukuni Shrine as the place where the emperor, who was at the time considered holy, prayed for war dead was fundamental to its rise in importance during what Japan called the Greater East Asian War. When the Meiji authorities built the shrine on Kudan Hill, across the street from the imperial palace grounds, proximity to the emperor was key.

By taking control away from the Shinto authorities and at the same time encouraging an emperor’s visit, Aso might be appealing to both sides of the Yasukuni debate. Abe appeals only to the nationalists on the issue.
But there is still no indication that disenshrining the war criminals is possible, and even before he introduced this new plan, Aso was agitating for Emperor Akihito to visit the shrine. If Hirohito stopped visiting the shrine after it was tarnished by the war criminals (as was recently confirmed by newly available documents), why would Akihito reverse this decision?

Family Feud

Via David Marx’s Neomarxisme:

Even though Abe Shinzo’s got a lock on the Prime Minister election, Foreign Minister Aso Taro formally announced his candidacy today. The two men are cousins, by the way, linked to several former Prime Ministers and the Imperial family. Thanks to the family tree on this page, we can better understand which side of the eternal political dynasty will be ruling Japan in the near future.

Aso is grandson of post-war PM Yoshida Shigeru (’46-’47, ’48-’54), and his sister is married to the son of Emperor Hirohito’s younger brother Prince Mikasanomiya. Aso’s wife is the daughter of PM Suzuki Zenko (’80-’82). Yoshida Shigeru shares the same grandfather as PMs Kishi Nobusuke (’57-’60) and Sato Eisaku (’67-’72) – who are brothers! Abe is the grandson of Kishi.

Anti-Japan Protests Restrained After Yasukuni Visit

Japan’s Mainichi Shimbun reports with little specific information that Chinese anti-Japan groups have heeded Chinese governmental injuctions against protesting Koizumi‘s Aug. 15 visit to Yasukuni Shrine.

After last year’s anti-Japan demonstrations in many parts of China, the Chinese government might be hoping to avoid a repeat. Last year’s demonstrations, which at first emerged in the context of Japan’s bid (along with India) to join the U.N. Security Council, quickly widened to include boycott efforts targeting Japanese business and large-scale public demonstrations. Chinese authorities at the time first cited Yasukuni, which was mostly out of the news during the 14 months since Koizumi’s previous visit, at the same time they made efforts to temper public rallies. These efforts included ordering Chinese media not to cover demonstrations and sending text messages to Chinese mobile phone customers warning against unauthorized gatherings.

My undergraduate thesis, which I will post soon, argues that the effect of the Chinese deployment of the Yasukuni controversy in public rhetoric last April helped guide the bilateral tensions down a well worn path: Koizumi’s repeated shrine visits produced a familiar ground for Sino-Japanese historical disputes, one where tensions are pronounced, yet predictable.

Chinese government efforts to keep anti-Japan demonstrators off the streets most likely reflect the regime’s constant interest in stability. Though to the extent that the CCP draws legitimacy from nationalist sentiment in its anti-Japan manifestation, discouraging anti-Japan expression could be risky. Keeping the peace and preventing public unrest that might threaten the stability of the regime and regional economic ties is important, but so might be maintaining a culture of national pride connected to the CCP.

Certainly, without more detailed information than the short Mainichi article, it is impossible to know.

Abe, MoFA Aim For High-Level Meetings

Japan’s Foreign Ministry is looking to arrange high-level meetings with South Korean and Chinese officials in November at the APEC forum in Hanoi and at the ASEAN+3 meeting in December.

The lead candidate for LDP president, Abe Shinzo, said on Aug. 3 he would work as prime minister to resume top-level summits with Chinese leaders. “To avoid single issues from affecting the overall development of Japan-China relations, we need constructive discussion through direct dialogue,” he said.