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April 01, 2005

Chinese Checkmate
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

So the Chinese have been supporting a popular petition drive that claims to have gathered 22 million signatures in opposition to Japan's bid for a permanent seat on the UNSC.  While its not clear that the government is behind this per se, they are giving prominent news coverage to the movement on state-run television.

One part of what's fascinating about that is this:  the Chinese feeling the need to legitimize their long-standing opposition to a Japanese seat with this outpouring of popular sentiment.  The implication is that without the support of the Chinese population clearly demonstrated to the world, the government would have a tougher time heading off the Japanese candidacy, or exercising its veto if it should come to that.

Two interesting things about this.  One is a striking corrollary to another phenomenon I've been noticing and writing about:  the growing impact of popular attitudes in democracies around the world on those countries' foreign policies and, specifically, on the United States' superpower prerogatives (for the short version of this argument see post, the long version see article).  Democratic governments are clearly becoming more beholden to their electorates when it comes to shaping foreign policy.  Popular opinion also seems to matter increasingly when it comes to establishing the legitimacy of policy decisions in the eyes of the rest of the world.   What's happening in China is the latest example of this phenomenon which bears watching.

The second noteworthy angle is what this means for China.  The NYT article doesn't look at the larger implications of a mass political movement coming to the fore there, though its last line quotes the petition drive's organizer saying "There has never before been a petition campaign of this magnitude in China.  It will be much harder for the government to suppress in future."  Surely the Chinese know this . . . what's interesting is that they seem to be promoting this effort anyway.


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» China's Ambition from CommonSenseDesk
China is permitting a popular, web-based movement intended to object to the UN proposal to add Japan to the Security Council. [Read More]

» Deja Vu from The Commons at Paulie World
From the same country that gave us the "Volunteer Army" during the Korean War: Chinese Checkmate So the Chinese have been supporting a popular petition drive that claims to have gathered 22 million signatures in opposition to Japa... [Read More]


"Democratic governments are clearly becoming more beholden to their electorates when it comes to shaping foreign policy."

Sure, but China isn't a democracy. Not that it has to be in order to use public opinion as political cover. Never before has the chinese government been so cowardly and insecure as to use the "diplomatic human shield" option of saying, or rather implying, that "our people won't stand for this."

While it would be difficult for China to justify opposition to granting Japan a permanent seat on the security council in any other way, we should ask ourselves why wouldn't China simply use their veto anyway?

I can only conclude that the Chinese government is under considerable pressure from some foreign quarter, to not oppose Japan's entry.

Let's also remember that the Bush administration wants to scupper Kofi's proposed changes to the UN entirely.

Nuff said?

While I suspect those who suspect the Chinese government are using popular opinion as cover aren't entirely wrong, I also think it's unwise to forget the military history between Japan and China. The Japanese army wasn't exactly benevolent in any of the countries it occupied in the 1930's and afterward, and the Chinese (individually and as a nation) still remember the Rape of Nanjing. Pretty much every family in China had relatives who suffered or were killed at the hands of the Japanese. My own father and grandparents barely managed to escape from the Japanese advance.

It's easy to forget these things in a country where history classes rarely even mention events outside of the sphere of the West, but from where I stand, the people of China have very good reason to oppose a Japanese presence on the UN security council, independent of their government's machinations.

the Chinese feeling the need to legitimize their long-standing opposition to a Japanese seat with this outpouring of popular sentiment

Two things:

1) Why do you assume that the Chinese 'need' these signatures to make their objections legitimate?

2) Is 22 million 'signatures' in a police state of 1,300 million people really an 'outpouring of popular sentiment'? Even when they can submit their 'signatures' via SMS?

I agree that Chinese people have a right to feel resentful and even fearful of Japan, especially in light of the Japanese government's intransigence over honoring war criminals and revisionist history textbooks. On the other hand, watching the Chinese government encourage this petition and boycotts of Japanese goods strikes me as ironic, considering how much development aid Japan has contributed to China since 1979.

It seems important that Chinese people have strong collective and personal memories of suffering under Japanese occupation. These memories are transmitted not only through family lines, but also through textbooks and news media in China--that is, through the Party. Contrast this with the quickly disappearing memories of the Tiananmen massacre, which most Chinese never knew the truth about in the first place. Few have the information to judge which army is more threatening: the one commanded by the Japanese government or the one under the leadership of the CCP.

China certainly has every right to protest Japan's bid. However, I fear the Chinese people's inability or lack of will to take pause regarding Japan's efforts at acknowledging and apologizing to Asia will simply make matters more complicated in the future. The "longer term issues" left out of the "discussion" are cause for some real concern to the region as a whole.

The West, in particular the US, has pressured Japan to contribute more than funds to the world's hot spots and become a "normal nation." Although ODA has been the foundation of Japan's diplomacy and overseas influence, this has not been seen as enough by the industrialized world. Recall the ridicule thrown at Japan after the first Gulf War. A UNSC seat is a logical step in this direction.

The current generation of Japanese simply do not relate to Japan's WW2 history as many senior Japanese do. From my own casual discussons with Japanese about this topic, there is growing resentment and worry about China's "popular" movements regarding any Japanese effort outside of its border. There is no denial about Japan's past among the general public--young and old alike. I fear that China's unrelenting guilt trips following Japan's efforts at becoming a "normal nation" is becoming a habit that may be both hard to break and dangerous for the region as a whole.

The Apology Question
A recent article in The Economist stated that Japan has apologized to China on 17 different occasions ( Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs makes its feelings of remorse about its WW2 past no secret ( Even the Chinese government's own websites have posted Koizumi's statements of remorse (

I'm not sure if the Chinese people know of the billions Japan has provided in grants to China or of the $300 million (UN's 2004 figure) Japan contributes to the UN each year. Besides, the additonal UNSC seats are being packaged as part of "UN Reform." Can China reasonably block Japan's seat without appearing as standing in the way of this reform?

In China, personal memories of the carnage of Japanese aggression have mingled with the depictions of textbooks and the media, generating a strong collective memory of suffering. This memory is real, and it's understandable that it comes to the forefront when Japan seeks to become a more assertive power. The problem is that this is the only understanding most Chinese people have of Japan. They need to know more about contemporary Japan, about the war apologies and the development aid. Other than issues surrounding the war, Japan’s presence in mainland media is limited to a territorial dispute with China and translated comics and cartoons (many people have told me, “They're only things I like from Japan!”) It's not that contemporary Chinese lack the ability to reflect, but rather they lack the information on which to reflect.

Let's not forget that Japan is not sending clear signals about its past. Yearly visits to the Yasukuni shrine and the approval of right-wing revisionist history textbooks unnecessarily offend victims of the war. Even though the vast majority contemporary Japanese have no responsibility for the war, they need to be sensitive to the symbolic value of their actions.

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