Last Saturday, something unexpected took place in China. Thousands of people took to the streets and protested against Japan’s purchase of a small island, called Senkaku by the Japanese and Diaoyu by the Chinese. Besieging the Japanese consulates in several major cities, the protesters asserted the sovereignty of the island. “Return our island,” some yelled. “Japanese devils get out.”
For the past few months, the anti-Japanese sentiment in China has escalated to the point of hysteria. Mobs obliterated anything Japanese. Across the country, Japanese-style restaurants with Chinese managers were raided. Japanese-made cars were set on fire, even though Chinese drivers owned them.
Meanwhile, the Chinese government barely interfered.
In China, protests would neither be allowed nor receive massive media coverage unless the government had their back. And in this case, the government’s support of the anti-Japanese protest serves two important functions: distraction and unification.
China has been plagued with deep social problems. Corruption and power abuse are almost conventional practices among Chinese officials. Every year, millions of voiceless people, who are usually victims of the corruption, travel to Beijing to voice their suffering — hoping to garner more attention. Instead, these appealers usually get rejected. They are beaten, detained or even killed by government officials at worst. Just days ago, 300 HIV victims, who were infected because of a government-backed blood transfusion scheme, protested in front of the local government building. Witnesses saw local police wielding batons at these victims.
Coupled with serious social problems is the Communist Party’s 2012 power transfer. In a few weeks, Xi Jinping will replace Hu Jintao to become the new President of China. The Party understands too well that serious social problems are seeds of revolution that could uproot its ruling. To make sure the power transition takes place as smoothly as possible, the government needs to distract the public’s attention away from internal affairs. By identifying a common foreign enemy, the government not only projects citizen attention outward, but also portrays itself as the central unifying force, working with its people for the same patriotic goal. In this case, the Party chose Japan as the enemy because it is very easy to stir up public animosity against the Japanese. The hatred stems not only from the territorial dispute, but also the Japanese invasion during the Second World War, in which millions of Chinese were murdered by the invaders.
By shifting focus to a specific issue, the Party can recede from public attention and focus on smoothing out the power transition. This technique is nothing new. When Mao Zedong started the Cultural Revolution in 1966, the dictator brainwashed his people into believing capitalists were the obstacles to actualizing communism in China. As a consequence, nearly all landlords and business owners were persecuted and often beaten to death by the proletarian mobs. By identifying capitalism as the common enemy, Mao became the leading hero in people’s mind, and, as a result, further consolidated his power.
But at the end of the day, it is the Chinese people who suffer. The Cultural Revolution that took away millions of people’s lives is a permanent scar in the hearts of Chinese people. And smashing Chinese-owned, Japanese-made cars or Japanese-themed restaurants does not hurt Japan in any possible way. They only hurt Chinese people themselves. And guess who is the biggest winner of all this violence: the monstrous Communist Party.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Sept. 17 print edition. Richard Zhang is a contributing columnist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.