The dispute over islands in the East China Sea is stirring up nationalist passions in the region. That doesn't bode well for the future of democracy.
The situation in East Asia is tense. Japan and China, two of the most powerful countries in the world, are locked in a bitter dispute over eight tiny, uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. The volatility of the issue -- compounded by the fact that the waters around the islands are rich in natural resources -- is such that it’s hard to know what will happen next. But there’s one prediction that I would already dare to make. I don’t think that this lingering feud bodes well for the fate of liberal democracy in the region.
The two sides can’t even agree over what the islands are called: They’re known as the Diaoyu to the Chinese, as the Senkakus to the Japanese. The argument over who has ultimate control over them has now boiled over, sending tens of thousands of angry Chinese into the streets in more than 85 cities. Some of those protestors have turned into rioters, attacking Japanese visitors or setting Japanese-operated businesses on fire. The government in Beijing recently dispatched six surveillance ships into Japanese-claimed waters around the islands, prompting fears about a possible clash between the two antagonists. One Chinese newspaper even called for launching nuclear missiles at Japan if it doesn’t concede sovereignty.
The rising tensions have led some to wonder about the possibility of war between the two countries. But even if it doesn’t come to that, the consequences are potentially devastating. Trade between the two countries is now worth some $345 billion a year. Some Japanese factories in China have already cut back on production due to the political instability. Chinese demonstrators have been calling for a boycott of Japanese goods. Anything that slows down the flow of goods and services between the two countries is a bad idea at a time when both are struggling to keep their economies chugging along.
This is not the first dispute over the islands, and in the past Beijing and Tokyo have always managed to pull back from the brink. But this time, matters are complicated by the delicate political situation on both sides of the East China Sea. In Japan, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda is struggling to break through political gridlock in order to realize his reform agenda, and he can’t afford to be outflanked by the conservative opposition. That’s why he recently instructed the government to purchase three of the islands from their private owners. (The alternative was to cede the ground to the right-wing mayor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, who had threatened to purchase the islands in the name of the city, thus scoring points among nationalists.) Noda’s move, which was actually an attempt to defuse the situation, nonetheless poured fuel on the fire of anti-Japan sentiment in China.
The People’s Republic, meanwhile, has problems of its own. The economy is slowing. Discontent over blatant corruption and widening inequality continues. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is preparing for its biggest political transition in more than a decade -- a transition has already been complicated by the scandal surrounding toppled Politburo member Bo Xilai and the recent mysterious disappearance of president-to-be Xi Jinping. There are plenty of rumors swirling around about the growing influence of hard-line nationalists in the military and elsewhere who are eager to impose their own agenda as a new generation of leaders prepares to assume power. If you’re a candidate for one of the top posts, this is not a good time to look like you’re kowtowing to the Japanese.
So why do I think that this won’t help democracy? It’s simple. Unchecked nationalism has a way of rolling over liberal aspirations. That’s because the intense emotions of identity politics have a way of stifling the tolerance that is one of the most fundamental of democratic principles.
The government in Beijing knows this very well. The Communist Party has a long history of stifling the democratic aspirations of its own people with appeals to “patriotism.” Posing as the guardian of Chinese national pride is the most obvious way for the CCP to bolster its own legitimacy. This tactic was recently on vivid display in Hong Kong, the former British colony that joined the People’s Republic in 1997 while retaining its distinct identity and political culture (which includes semi-free elections, independent courts, and a rambunctious press).
Over the years, the people of Hong Kong have fought to preserve some of the things that make the place special -- including a raucous culture of street demonstrations. Just this past summer, the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement succeeded in thwarting government plans to introduce a program of Beijing-sponsored “patriotic education” (meaning, specifically, a view of history that glorifies the achievements of the CCP and glosses over the mind-boggling crimes committed in its name). Hong Kong’s democrats rightfully congratulated themselves on a proud assertion of self-determination (though their victory didn’t translate into comparable success in the legislative elections that followed soon thereafter -- and which, after all, aren't really democratic).
All the stranger, then, that some of the very same activists who figured prominently in the movement against patriotic education have now emerged as leaders in the Action Committee for Defending the Diaoyu Islands, a homegrown group committed to defending Chinese sovereignty over the disputed islands. On August 15, a ship carrying several Hong Kong activists landed on the islands, where they unfurled the flags of both the People’s Republic of China (capital: Beijing) and the Republic of China (capital: Taipei). The group included Tsang Kin-Shing, a leading member of Hong Kong’s League of Social Democrats party who’s better known in the territory by his nickname “The Bull.” Officers of the Japanese Coast Guard spent hours trying to persuade the protestors to leave, but finally arrested and deported them. Upon their return to Hong Kong, the activists were hailed as heroes. (The Bull, third from left, is shown with his colleagues in the photo above, protesting in front of the Japanese Consulate in Hong Kong earlier this week.)
It’s impossible to understand this apparent contradiction without some insight into the roots of Chinese nationalism. For Chinese patriots, resentment of Japan’s past aggression against their country is a touchstone of the cause. Anger over Japan’s perceived inability to acknowledge the scale of the destruction and humiliation it inflicted on the Chinese before and during World War II remains intense. That Tokyo insists on maintaining its claims to the islands merely pours salt into this open wound.
This is why The Bull and his colleagues don’t see any contradiction between their pushback against Beijing at home and their embrace of Beijing’s agenda in their fight for the islands. They stress that they’re asserting the right of “the Chinese people” to sovereignty over the islands, not the claims of the communist government on the mainland (which is why they made a point of holding up the Taiwanese flag as well). Beijing, they say, has been too timid in asserting China’s rights to the islands, so they’ve been compelled to step into the breach. The activists don’t see this as undermining their push for democracy; just the opposite. The crowds of protestors on the streets of the mainland “are organizing today against Japan,” The Bull told me via email. “In the future, they will organize and revolt against the [Chinese Communist] Party.” Perhaps.
For some in Hong Kong, though, the tension is not so easily explained away. Hong Kong bloggers worry that the activists’ antics will undermine support for the democratic parties in the territory and help the “patriotic” (i.e., pro-Beijing) forces. Referring to the flag of the communist mainland, another blogger writing in the same forum cited above notes wryly: “Burning 5-star flag in Hong Kong Island, raising 5-star flag in Diaoyu Islands. Serious split personality disorder!” Some commentators point out that the pro-Beijing chief executive of Hong Kong, Leung Chun Ying, has given his support to the pro-Diaoyu activists. So will Beijing use the Diaoyu issue to drive a wedge into Hong Kong’s already fractious democrats? And what does that mean for the future of dissidents on the mainland?
Patriotism is not inherently bad. And, in fact, many patriotic movements throughout history have gone hand in hand with the development of democratic institutions. But precisely because national feeling conjures up such intense and polarizing emotions, it can be a powerful weapon in the wrong hands. And there’s certainly an argument to be made that allowing for genuinely democratic expression of nationalist sentiment is usually better than artificially suppressing it.
There’s ample evidence that Beijing has been trying to control and channel the anti-Japanese demonstrations to its own ends, a dangerous balancing act that could easily slide out of control. (Beijing has just reinforced that point by announcing a ban on further demonstrations, which might calm things down a bit, at least superficially.) In Japan, meanwhile, the islands dispute threatens to push the country’s politics rightwards, thus polarizing Japan’s relations with its neighbors (all of whom have their own territorial disputes with Tokyo).
One bright spot: The (democratically elected) government in Taiwan, which also claims sovereignty over the Diaoyus yet boasts relatively warm relations with both the mainland and the Japanese, has offered itself as a mediator in the island dispute. That’s an initiative worth pursuing. It just might work. And, if it does, it will have the added benefit of demonstrating to the region that democracies are actually pretty good at finding solutions to problems just like this.