- By David WertimeDavid Wertime is senior editor of Tea Leaf Nation. David joins FP after having co-founded Tea Leaf Nation, a news site dedicated to Chinese citizen and social media, which was acquired by the FP Group in Sept. 2013. A former lawyer in New York and Hong Kong, David first encountered China as a Peace Corps volunteer. He has appeared on BBC television, Al Jazeera English, Public Radio International, Voice of America, and other outlets as a commentator on China. Originally from the Philadelphia area, David holds a law degree from Harvard and an English degree from Yale, where he was executive editor of the Yale Herald.
Beijing has just thrown down the latest gauntlet in a long-simmering territorial dispute with Tokyo — and China’s citizens are cheering. On Nov. 23, China’s Ministry of Defense released a map showing the "Chinese Air Defense Identification Zone," a wide swath over the East China Sea, and stated China had the right to monitor and possibly take military action against foreign aircraft that come into that territory. But the area also covers territory currently administered by Japan, including the disputed Diaoyu Islands, which the Japanese call the Senkakus.
The move sharply raised tensions not only with Japan, but with the United States: U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a statement that he was "deeply concerned" by the "destabilizing" announcement, while Japan’s Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida warned it could "trigger unpredictable events." But on China’s Internet, where much of the country’s political expression finds its fullest voice, the reaction is far different: Web users hailed China’s move against what they derisively call the "abnormal nation" of "little Japan." And they want the United States to stay out of it.
On Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, over 200,000 recent posts mention the air defense map; of those sampled, the vast majority lauded Beijing for defending China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. As one user wrote, the map "lets the little Japanese know that our power does not stop at the tip of our tongue." Another wrote it was time for China to "take Japan to school and teach it how to act." Netizens seemed aware that the move will probably raise tensions, but they didn’t seem to mind. "The likelihood of conflict from ‘polished guns’ between the two armies has just risen," Lin Zhibo, a journalist at the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily, wrote, invoking a Chinese term for a serious conflict emerging from a small matter. "This is a danger we must have the courage to shoulder."
The only complaint most Chinese commenters seemed to have was timing: They wanted this to have happened earlier, as pushback against a neighbor many Chinese feel has "never reckoned" with the history of World War II, when Japan committed atrocities in China. A user called "Silent Majority" wrote, "This is a measure aimed at Japan’s remilitarization," a process that seems to have begun in earnest following Shinzo Abe’s Dec. 2012 election as Japanese prime minister. If China "waits for others to move before we react," the user continued, "there won’t be enough time." Military analyst Yue Gang agreed. "This is the correct direction for China’s strategic preparations," he wrote on Weibo. "Clenching its fists together to make a breakthrough."
So far, fulmination appears confined to the Internet. But "strident anti-Japanese sentiment expressed online can spill into the street, as we have often seen in the past," says Susan Shirk, an expert on China’s international relations at UC San Diego. In Sept. 2012, conflicts over Japan’s nationalization of the Senkakus incited a series of violent protests directed at Japanese consulates and carmakers in China. Something similar could happen this time.
But what’s different now is the unusual amount of Chinese anger at the United States for getting involved in a dispute that, as one Weibo user wrote, has "not one cent’s worth of relevance" to it. Common among anti-U.S. posts were those attacking what commenters termed the "arrogant" "Yanks," a "policeman" of the East China Sea, where the islands lie, who was "going rogue" by interfering with Sino-Japanese ties. Many felt it was time for the United States to acknowledge China’s increasingly assertive role. "There will be much that ‘seriously concerns’ the United States in the future," wrote one user, paraphrasing Hagel’s comment. "They should get used to it."