Why China Is Stirring Up Anti-Japanese Sentiment
State-supported anger in the wake of Japan’s Fukushima wastewater release follows a nationalist script.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
The highlights this week: China pushes boycotts after Japan releases Fukushima wastewater, Chinese President Xi Jinping makes an unannounced stop in Xinjiang, and U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo visits Beijing.
China Reacts to Fukushima Wastewater Release
Japan is releasing treated radioactive wastewater from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, following approval from the International Atomic Energy Agency. Scientists almost universally agree that the release is safe—although a few experts have raised questions—but China has reacted with anger, banning seafood imports from Japan and stirring up an anti-Japanese campaign in state media, which could lead to further boycotts. Japan has also complained of harassing calls to local institutions and businesses from Chinese phone numbers.
China often deploys informal boycotts as a form of economic coercion. These can be driven by state media and backed by unannounced official action while billed as a result of public anger. That said, there is genuine fear in China about the wastewater release—thanks to exaggerated media claims. As during the Fukushima disaster in 2011, people are hoarding salt to protect from supposed radiation; it is selling out from some Chinese online retailers. All of this is happening despite the fact that China regularly releases treated wastewater from its own nuclear plants into the ocean.
The Chinese response is likely a sign of more to come. The credibility of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rests on three pillars: ideology, the economy, and nationalism. Ideological credibility fell apart after the Cultural Revolution decades ago and hasn’t recovered, despite Xi’s preoccupation with Marxist rhetoric and Communist martyrs. For a long time, the CCP leaned heavily on the economy. Quality of life improved every year, which was credited to the party’s leadership. But the current economic slowdown has put an end to that idea, especially among young people.
That leaves nationalism, and Japan-bashing is an easy option, given the country’s brutal record in China in the 20th century. Every Chinese schoolchild learns about Japan’s wartime atrocities—as well as that Japan has supposedly never apologized for its past sins. (This is untrue, but it doesn’t help that Japan has its own contingent of denialists.) The CCP is thus able to portray Japan’s release of treated wastewater as another form of foreign oppression and intrusion that only the party can stand against.
The CCP also sometimes seems to take a cathartic approach to the public mood, in which anger directed at another country is seen as better than rage directed at China’s leadership. It’s not clear that that’s true: Letting protests happen sometimes just encourages people to demonstrate further in the future, and nationalist sentiments can easily turn on the government. But given the state of the Chinese economy and the anger that erupted over the government’s zero-COVID policy last year, the idea of a safety valve is likely appealing to Chinese officials.
Businesses operating in China with visibly Japanese names are growing concerned. During the last round of anti-Japanese protests in China—after the Japanese government took control of the disputed Diaoyu Islands, known in Japan as the Senkaku Islands, in 2012—protesters damaged and looted factories and stores. The Chinese government largely allowed the unrest to go ahead, with police standing by while crowds vented their anger. Japanese restaurants in China are already taking preemptive measures, highlighting they are Chinese-owned and publicly condemning Tokyo.
Violence also flared in China in 2005, after Japan approved an ultra-nationalist textbook for use in schools. The incident highlighted a key misunderstanding. Japan’s education system approves textbooks but does not mandate them, and the textbooks in question were used by a handful of right-wing private schools. But Chinese protesters treated the textbooks as if they were prescribed for use in all schools, as with textbooks in China.
That kind of projection is common on China’s part, which suggests that part of the reason for the mistrust of Japan over the Fukushima wastewater may be because the Chinese public is so used to its own government lying about or obfuscating public health issues that people assume that Japan does the same.
What We’re Following
Xi in Xinjiang. On the way back from the BRICS conference in South Africa last week, Chinese President Xi Jinping made an unannounced stop in Xinjiang, where he praised the Chinese government’s policies there—described by the United Nations as crimes against humanity and by the United States as genocide—and called for tighter measures. State atrocities against the Uyghur Muslim minority continue in Xinjiang, including the disappearance of people who investigate the fate of their relatives. Uyghurs who live overseas are harassed by Chinese security forces.
Xi specifically singled out the “Sinification of Islam,” which will likely prompt further expansion of anti-Muslim policies beyond Xinjiang, including bans on prayer, fasting, and religious education. Xi also praised the “reallocation of labor” outside Xinjiang—a euphemism for Chinese firms’ use of forced Uyghur labor. Expanding those programs would make things more difficult for foreign firms in China, which are already grappling with U.S. anti-forced labor laws. Proving clean supply chains may become even harder.
However, that Xi felt the need to visit Xinjiang may indicate some—likely weak—opposition to the policies inside the CCP, even if only on the grounds that they have damaged China’s image worldwide.
Online propaganda flop. Facebook has identified a major Chinese influence effort on its platforms, but the campaign suffered from the usual problem: However much time and effort Chinese agents put into spreading propaganda online, it doesn’t have many takers. The so-called Spamouflage campaign involved more than 9,000 Facebook and Instagram accounts, but the material produced—which included claims that COVID-19 originated in the United States—was rarely reposted or noted by anyone outside the senders’ network.
China’s lack of political flexibility hinders such disinformation efforts. Russian propaganda is relatively successful because it uses talking points from both sides of the political spectrum—a pattern that has continued in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, even as the propaganda is driven more to the fringes. In contrast, Chinese officials face political consequences if they stray beyond approved material. The resulting propaganda is inevitably unconvincing and relies largely on Chinese domestic idioms.
As in previous hacking and disinformation cases, the Spamouflage group was identified as Chinese—and likely state-operated—in part because the posters took the two-hour lunch break typical of Chinese government employees.
FP’s Most Read This Week
- Russia’s Illegal Bridges Have Ukrainian Crosshairs on Them by Oz Katerji
- The Panda Party’s Almost Over by Rishi Iyengar
- Turkey’s Halt on Iraqi Oil Exports Is Shaking Up Global Markets by Emir Gurbuz
Tech and Business
Raimondo in Beijing. U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo is the latest Biden administration official deployed to Beijing as part of the well-meaning but largely futile attempt to create a floor for the U.S.-China relationship. On Tuesday, Raimondo offered the usual platitudes about the United States not wanting to “hold China back,” which officials in Beijing are likely to receive with the usual skepticism. The Chinese leadership sees the United States as the enemy, and it doesn’t understand partisan divisions within democracies.
One of Raimondo’s comments was more realistic—that U.S. businesses were telling her that China is currently “uninvestable” thanks to Chinese government policies targeting foreign firms through mechanisms such as fines, raids, and a new counterintelligence law. This has led to an abrupt and steep drop in foreign investment in China. Raimondo seemed to issue a clear message to Beijing: Pull back on these policies to get the money rolling again.
But coming from a U.S. official, the Chinese leadership will likely see that as a trap, not an offer. If anything, it may amplify Chinese fears that foreign investment provides Washington with leverage rather than advantaging Beijing.
Stock market slide. China’s tightly controlled stock market is still sliding despite the government’s best efforts to boost the market, with most of the gains of a brief rally lost on Monday. After post-COVID improvements, Chinese markets have been volatile but generally losing value since June. Foreign investors seem to be losing confidence in Beijing’s ability to prop the market up and are doing their best to move money out.
The stock market is relatively unimportant in China, where firms and families alike are overwhelmingly invested in property instead. Many of those invested in the market were retail investors with relatively little experience, and a lot were driven away by China’s 2015 stock market crash. But there’s no good news coming out of the property market either, where a nearly four-year crisis seems to be reaching a critical stage. The government still seems to be tinkering on the sidelines as major developer Country Garden edges closer to a debt default.
James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer
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