Takahara Akio, professor of contemporary Chinese politics, University of Tokyo2012/01/27
The continuing recession in Europe and the United States reverberates ominously throughout the world. China appears to be doing well amid it all, and yet from within a sense of being blocked off from a future of promise is building.
Prices are rising, but the incomes of many people are not increasing. Corruption and the need for connections to get things done is pervasive, and as the social strata become increasingly fixed, the income gap is only growing. People’s awareness of their rights has grown, but there is nothing to brake the abuses of power by officialdom. Will dissatisfaction build up to a boiling point? Or will it be possible to bleed off the excess steam and keep things on an even keel? The key lies in the way information circulates.
At the time of the Tunisian Jasmine Revolution (which lasted 30 days from the end of 2010 to the middle of January 2011) rebels utilized new media such as Facebook. In spring in China a curious term began to appear on the Internet, consisting of only the top part of three characters. When written in full, the characters read mo li hua (jasmine), a word that had quickly been made subject to government censorship. The truncated characters served as code for “jasmine” in the unceasing tug-of-war in cyberspace between the authorities and netizens in China.
At the same time, in the wake of the wave of anger expressed via the Internet over the handling of the rescue effort following the Wenzhou July 23 high-speed train accident in China’s eastern province of Zhejiang, the government had the train car that had been buried dug up and replaced the railway ministry spokesman for making inappropriate statements. Even television broadcasters, newspapers, and other conventional media were on the side critical of the railway ministry.
The way information circulates is a major issue in foreign relations as well. The anti-Japan demonstrations of October 2010 were organized through the Internet and cell phones. The previous month, a picture of a Japanese Coastguard patrol boat ramming into the side of a Chinese fishing vessel (when in fact the fishing boat rammed the patrol boat) was posted on the Xinhuanet news, an information web site run by the official New China News Agency. Regarding issues involving nationalist sentiment, those who try to engage in calm discussion are always a minority.
There are some signs of a change in this situation, however. At the August 2011 Beijing-Tokyo Forum, the editor-in-chief of a certain newspaper expressed her regret that her paper had reprinted the picture of the September 2010 boat collision that appeared on the Xinhuanet without checking its accuracy. One year after the incident, we also saw an article, in a newspaper that ordinarily publish pieces fanning the flames of anti-Japanese sentiment, saying that too many anti-Japanese war movies could result in portraying Japan as an enemy on whom to take revenge and be disadvantageous at a time when China wants to achieve healthy relations with Japan.
New media have developed that now allow individuals to disseminate information via the Internet. Some journalists, tossed about by the forces of nationalism and commercialism, have begun to try to evaluate issues dispassionately and make judgments on their own. Nationalism is effective in unifying people, but an overdose can also be gravely destabilizing. Even the members of the central leadership of China cannot agree on the proper prescription.
The Chinese media are in a state of flux, the root of which lies in the pent-up discontent of the people. We Japanese must take care that we do not inadvertently arouse misunderstanding by ill-considered words or deeds.
(Originally published in Japanese in the Asahi Shimbun, Oct. 29 / 2011)
(Translation by Lynne E. Riggs)