Tea Leaf Nation

'The Anti-Japanese War Had Nothing to Do With Your Most Honorable Party'

Some Chinese may really hate Japan -- but that doesn't mean they love the Party.

On July 7, Chinese awoke to a blitz of state media coverage commemorating the 77th anniversary of the Marco Polo Bridge incident, which marked the beginning of Japan's invasion of China and a bloody eight-year war between the two nations. State media outlets featured interviews, historical footage, social media posts, and editorials reminding readers of the importance of history. Headlining most major news sites was a full transcript of President Xi Jinping's scathing speech at a Marco Polo Bridge memorial ceremony in Beijing, in which he castigated Japanese attempts to whitewash history and praised the Chinese Communist Party for "shouldering the historical responsibility of national salvation" and the role it played in ousting the Japanese.

Playing to popular anti-Japanese sentiment has sometimes helped the ruling Chinese Communist Party maintain legitimacy. But while hatred of Japan runs deep and wide in China, some Chinese resent the party's attempt to co-opt history to glorify itself. One Weibo post by party mouthpiece People's Daily commemorating  the anniversary was re-tweeted over 50,000 times and garnered more then 8,300 comments. But far and away the most up-voted comment on this post read, "The anti-Japanese war had nothing to do with your most honorable party" -- a reference to the officially ignored fact that the then ruling Nationalist Party led the wartime effort against Japan. State-run television broadcaster China Central Television also posted a series of wartime photos on its Weibo account. The most popular response read "Never forget that the legal government of China at that time was the Republic of China, and China's supreme commander was Chiang Kai-shek," the wartime Nationalist leader now vilified by the party. Hu Xijin, outspoken chief editor of the fervently nationalist newspaper Global Times, defended historical memorializing in a widely read post on July 7 -- but the top-rated comment blasted Hu for turning the Marco Polo Bridge incident into a "political tool," brandished whenever relations with Japan became especially strained.

While commemoration of important World War II anniversaries is nothing new in China, this year has seen a marked uptick in anti-Japanese memorializing. In February, the government announced two new anti-Japanese national holidays, the "War Against Japanese Aggression Victory Day" and "Nanjing Massacre Memorial Day," marking the December 1937 Japanese invasion of the southern city of Nanjing in which Japanese soldiers slaughtered an estimated 300,000 people. The increased anti-Japanese rhetoric is a reaction to long-simmering disputes over islands in the East China Sea. And Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's recent amendment to the island nation's historically pacifist constitution -- which will allow Japan to send troops abroad for the first time since World War II -- has further heightened anxieties between the two countries.

Chinese authorities may hope to fan and then funnel the rising anti-Japanese sentiment to exert pressure on Japan, and to improve the party's image. Some Chinese netizens, however, have their own message: Being anti-Japan doesn't so easily translate into being pro-party.

AFP/Getty Images

Tea Leaf Nation

Changing the Chinese Embassy's Address to Liu Xiaobo Plaza Is a Silly Idea

It's a distraction. Besides, there are better ways to support human rights in China.

I rarely agree with the Chinese Embassy in Washington, but an amendment making its way through Congress has made me unlikely bedfellows with Beijing's Washington diplomats.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) has sponsored an amendment to rename the street on which the Chinese Embassy stands from International Place to Liu Xiaobo Plaza. Liu is a famous Chinese dissident who deservedly won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 while in the first year of an 11-year prison sentence. In the West, he symbolizes Chinese human rights violations; in China, where he is probably less known, he symbolizes Western meddling in its domestic affairs.

On July 5, the Washington Post editorial page endorsed the amendment. A Chinese Embassy spokesperson called the amendment "really absurd" -- and I agree.

Here's why changing the address is a foolish idea.

It narrows the scope of the U.S.-China relationship. 

"Speaking out against an egregious injustice is the right thing to do," the Post editorial reads, "and, as history has shown, can eventually make a difference." It's difficult to directly counter that piece of bland sophistry. Yes, speaking out against injustice is important. The United States does -- and should -- support Liu. But it's a mistake to indelibly associate the Chinese Embassy with Liu: The U.S.-China relationship encompasses much more than just human rights.

From July 9 to 10 the United States and China will hold their annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue, featuring U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, and their counterparts. The topics addressed -- and those carefully ignored -- at the dialogue represent a "what's what" in the relationship: cybersecurity, appreciation of China's currency, military ties, and Chinese tensions with Japan, among others. Human rights is just one of many topics on the table. (And if the United States didn't talk to China about any of these other things, it wouldn't be able to talk to China about human rights.)

The editorial compares the Liu amendment to the decision in 1984 to rename the street just outside of the Soviet Embassy after Andrei Sakharov, one of the USSR's most prominent dissidents. The USSR was an autarkic empire with limited trade links to the United States, whereas China is the world's largest trading nation, whose economy is deeply integrated with the United States. It's a different time, and a different relationship.

It sets an uncomfortable precedent.

The embassy of the disturbingly repressive kingdom of Saudi Arabia occupies a generous plot of land in downtown Washington. Should the United States rename that area in honor of Manal al-Sharif, the Saudi women's rights activist? The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Belarus, Iraq, Egypt, and other countries with poor human rights situations have embassies in Washington. Should their embassy addresses all be renamed as well? 

It's not going to work.

Liu's Nobel Peace Prize sent a strong message to Beijing and to Chinese human rights activists that the international community supports Chinese dissidents and the rights of Chinese. While that support has wavered, Liu's Nobel Prize remains a potent symbol. Renaming the area around the embassy, on the other hand, won't galvanize China's human rights community, nor will it demonstrate U.S. support.

Want to help Liu? Support his wife, Liu Xia, under de facto house arrest in her apartment in Beijing. The newly minted American Ambassador to Beijing, Max Baucus, or a visiting high-ranking U.S. official could try to visit her.

Want to help Liu's cause? Pass an amendment funding education for dissidents to study in the United States, or in Hong Kong. Provide more U.S.-funded training to human rights lawyers working in China.

In response to the Chinese Embassy's charge that the renaming is absurd, the Post editorial writes: "What's absurd is that Liu Xiaobo is now in the fifth year of an 11-year prison sentence for advocating greater freedom for his country, and that his wife is under house arrest for no charge at all." Beijing's behavior toward Liu is absurd. But U.S. policy has never been to fight absurdity with absurdity. Let's not start now.