On China’s National Day, October 1, fans at the MIDI music festival in Zhenjiang, China, decided to follow up a set by a metal band with an act of their own: burning a defaced Japanese flag while singing the Chinese national anthem. Video at bottom.
When photographer Matthew Niederhauser posted this video on his photo blog, he justifiably sought to clarify that he did not intend to support the burning of a flag. I of course agree.
With the anti-Japanese furor having died down, it might be time to reflect on the way the English-language media have covered the Sino–Japanese dispute after the recent confrontation at the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. When “tensions run high” or “angry” Chinese stage demonstrations, we rarely see reports on the scope of mobilization or the definition of a “tension” in international relations.
One way to understand the significance of this incident comes from the blog Observing Japan. Almost a month ago, Tobias Harris argued that “not much” had changed since Koizumi Jun’ichirō left office and Abe Shinzō entered in 2006. Koizumi, who during his long term as Japan’s prime minister repeatedly inflamed anti-Japanese sentiment by visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, was gone. Leaders since then have seen fewer public political problems with China. He argues, however, that the September–October dispute this year shows that Japan’s focus on a “strategic, reciprocal relationship” with China has resulted in little change.
With the unfair advantage of a month’s worth of watching events unfold, I agree half-way. This round of confrontation over the islands resembles many previous incidents in that, although there was a concrete element in the form of the arrested Chinese captain, the dispute was largely symbolic rather than strategic. It is different in that we haven’t seen one of these incidents in a while. So, agreeing with Tobias, I don’t think all that much has changed. Economic and diplomatic relations continue on mostly segregated tracks, and symbolic disputes still exist. But isn’t there something laudable about the fact* that this small mobilization of demonstrators marked the largest such incident since April 2005?
For another day, and here’s something I really don’t know the answer to, how real and how artificial is the division between economic and diplomatic or political relations that we hear about so often in Sino-Japanese relations?
*I haven’t checked this thoroughly, but I can’t think of another incident of this size in the interim. Some might object that anti-Japan speech during the pre-Olympic anti-foreign-media demonstrations in 2008 could count, but I believe those incidents were on a separate track and if anything targeted “the West” more than any single country.