Thursday, February 24, 2005

How do you say "Redneck" in Mandarin ?

Animosity toward Japan is again the rage in China

Lu Yunfei is a young, technology-savvy executive at an Internet company in Beijing. But it's what he does in his spare time that makes him of interest beyond China's shores.

Over the past five years, Lu, 29, has emerged as a leader of China's increasingly vociferous and predominantly anti-Japanese nationalist movement. As the head of the 80,000-member Patriots' Alliance, Lu created the country's most popular nationalist Web site, staged protests outside the Japanese Embassy and organized provocative trips to a cluster of islands in the East China Sea occupied by Japan but claimed by China.

With his trim, camel-colored jacket and stylish haircut, Lu doesn't look like a political zealot. But his cool demeanor belies the heat of his anti-Japanese views. Once a fan of Japanese movies and cartoons, Lu now says that by confronting China in recent incidents and refusing to apologize for its aggression in World War II, Tokyo is headed down "a fascist road."

Lu's uncompromising views are shared by many Chinese. They help explain why relations between China and Japan have plummeted to their lowest point in years.

"We should teach the Japanese a good lesson and let them know how tough the Chinese people are," says Li Jin, 28, a freelance writer. "Maybe we should nuke them once and for all."

No one expects the ill will to lead to war. But for the United States, unchecked animosity between the countries carries real dangers. The United States shares with Japan a desire to profit from China's enormous market. But both governments remain wary of Beijing's ongoing military modernization and growing regional influence. Escalating disputes between China and Japan risk contaminating U.S.-China ties at a time when the United States hopes China can help thwart North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

"I think the Americans have the wrong friend. Japan is like a mad dog, and sooner or later, it'll cause the U.S. great trouble," says Zhang Yihua, 32, an advertising designer.

On Saturday in Washington, the United States and Japan issued a joint document that advocated the "peaceful resolution" of the status of Taiwan, the island that Beijing regards as a renegade province. Within days, a commentary in the state-run China Daily newspaper blasted that mild statement as "an irresponsible and reckless move that will have grave consequences."

"The Chinese are debating U.S. and Japanese intentions. There's a strong argument within the Chinese leadership that the U.S. wants to use Japan to constrain China," says Wenran Jiang, a political scientist and expert on East Asian politics at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

In the 1990s, as the appeal of communist ideology waned, the Chinese government began using nationalism to shore up its public support. But fearing such fervor could boomerang, the party has been cautious. Last fall, the government closed Lu's Web site after he launched a petition protesting a contract awarded to a Japanese firm for construction of a high-speed Beijing-to-Shanghai rail line.

"The Chinese government is clear: Nationalism is a double-edged sword," says Suisheng Zhao, a University of Denver professor and author of a recent book on Chinese nationalism.

Sometimes, nationalist ire is directed at the United States. Much more often, however, it emerges as anti-Japanese feeling. "It's extremely widespread," says Edward Friedman, a political scientist and author on Chinese politics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The roots of anti-Japanese sentiment lie in Japan's brutal occupation of northeast China from 1931 to 1945. Japanese forces employed indiscriminate violence, used chemical weapons and conducted medical experiments on civilians. Chinese government media say 35 million Chinese died in the war. "There was an atrocious quality to the Japanese occupation that most people in the rest of the world are unaware of," Friedman says.

Today's democratic Japan, whose military is constitutionally limited to self-defense, bears little resemblance to the empire that ravaged Asia in the 1930s and 1940s. But Friedman says the Chinese have "blinded themselves to this reality."

Even those too young to have experienced the war are bitter. "Japan brought a lot of harm and pain to the Chinese people. Millions of people died," Lu says. "This is history that nobody can erase."

Xu Yong, 55, a professor at Beijing University, spent a year as a visiting scholar in Japan and says he counts many Japanese as friends. But he castigates their "very dangerous and evil" government and worries about "the thirst for blood in the Japanese culture."

Nevertheless, economic ties between the two countries are growing stronger. Last year, China replaced the United States as Japan's top trading partner. Since 1979, Japan has funneled $30 billion in development aid to its former wartime adversary.

In recent months, however, political relations have steadily soured. In August, following China's loss to Japan in a soccer match, fans attacked a Japanese diplomat's car, chanted angry slogans and threw bottles at the Japanese team bus.

In November, Japan protested when a Chinese submarine strayed into its waters south of Okinawa. The following month, Japan for the first time officially singled out China as a potential enemy. Days later, Beijing was livid when Tokyo granted a visa to former Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui.

The recurrent sniping culminated this month in Tokyo's takeover of a lighthouse on the disputed island chain - known to China as Diaoyu and Japan as Senkaku - in the East China Sea. Japanese nationalists erected the 18-foot tall structure several years ago and formally transferred ownership to their government this month.

Denouncing the move as "illegal," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan called the islands an "inalienable part of Chinese territory."

In March 2004, Lu organized a seaborne protest that landed seven Chinese nationalists on the islands. Japanese authorities arrested and deported the Chinese activists.

Lu says he's ready to organize more trips and would "do anything" to protect the islands. But he says he's not spoiling for a fight and doesn't think his government wants one, either.