by Zhengxu Wang.

In recent days, public protests have been erupting in Chinese cities, with demonstrators demanding that the Japanese government return the Diaoyu Islands to China. Yesterday, it was reported that the vehicle of the Japanese ambassador to  China was attacked while driving on Beijing’s Fourth Ring Road.  These protests have put a lot of pressure on the Chinese government to take a tougher stance against Japan.

They have come after a group of activists, sailing on a Hong Kong vessel, landed on one of the disputed islands in an effort to proclaim China’s sovereignty. They were arrested but quickly released after pressure from the government and the public in Beijing, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

The incident and ensuing public outcry has shown that the islands remain a highly explosive issue within contemporary Chinese nationalism. It is also clear that nationalism is rising in Japan and other Asian countries. In fact, domestic opinion in Japan is also calling for a more assertive line on the Diaoyu issue. The activists’ landing was provoked by a series of events in Japan that suggested a more assertive stance.

A plan to “nationalise” the islands appears under serious consideration by some sections of Japanese society and the government. How to manage the dispute with the other party while satisfying domestic public opinion presents a big challenge to policymakers both in Tokyo and Beijing.

The Chinese public maintains a strong belief that the Diaoyu Islands are a legitimate part of China. The Ming and Qing dynasties had administrative control over them. In fact, Chinese researchers have pointed to Japanese historical documents acknowledging the islands as being under Qing governance. And, in private, some Japanese government officials have acknowledged that, historically, the islands did not belong to Japan.

Leaving aside all the legal and geopolitical nuances following the defeat of Japan in the second world war, what is significant today is that the majority of Chinese on the mainland, and in Hong Kong and Taiwan, believe that the administrative rights of those islands were illegally transferred to Japan in the 1950s and 1970s, when the US was attempting to build Japan as its pillar for a Western Pacific security strategy.

Chinese communities, including those on the mainland and in Hong Kong and Taiwan, harbour nationalist sentiments. Hong Kong and Taiwanese people may reject the political regime on the mainland, but when it comes to the Diaoyu issue, they share almost identical, if not more aggressive, positions.

In fact, activists in Hong Kong and Taiwan are often much more outspoken, as they are able to express their views more freely. As a result, activists from these apparently “less Chinese” places express Chinese nationalism more vocally.

This pattern also applies to other issues where China’s territorial claims are yet to be fully settled: the South China Sea, Tibet and Xinjiang are cases in point.
On these issues, Chinese living everywhere often speak out to support Beijing’s position. It is therefore simplistic to assert that the nationalism that has erupted over these disputed territories has been nurtured by the communist regime.

The underlying message is that, despite political differences, Chinese often share a set of common ideas when it comes to territory. Despite an allegiance to different governments (Beijing, Taipei, or others), they have a common understanding that the Chinese nation is linked to a certain geographical area.
Finding solutions to territorial disputes therefore constitutes a major challenge for Beijing. It will amount to a major nation-building project that Chinese  nationalists – on the mainland, and in Hong Kong and Taiwan – are looking to the current leaders to accomplish.

Failing to find a satisfactory solution will result in it being labeled a “traitor government”, with its right to represent China taken back by the people.
To a lesser extent, the government in Taiwan, which still claims to represent the Chinese people, faces the same challenge.


This blog is part of a commentary by the author that was published in the South China Morning Post on 24 August, 2012.

Dr Zhengxu Wang is  Deputy Director of the China Policy Institute and Lecturer at the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.


  1. I really liked this article, Zhengxu. It really summed up deeply and concisely the issues from a perspective of a professional researcher who also has Chinese roots making it uniquely insightful.

    There is just one part I cannot agree with you on and it is the part about unity concerning Tibet and Xinjiang. You cannot lump Xinjiang and Tibet with the South China Sea issue. The only connecting link is on the whole, mainland Han nationalist Chinese concerning the former 2 regions. If we were to sum Greater China into a whole, so-called, then it may be deeply divided about these issues, but clearly divided as well.

    The most bluntly obvious illustration of this Yang Kuang 陽匡 who was jailed after leading the 1989 Guangzhou Worker’s movement and was one of the ‘landing committee’ on the islands.

    He has been photographed at other demonstrations wearing a 1980s style “FREE TIBET” T-shirt on Hu Jintao’s visit to Hong Kong, and has been spotted sporting a Taiwan National Flag T-shirt and wearing it in front of the PRC flag. The view that more autonomy/independence rather than unification with Peking is a majority view outside the mainland, and probably amongst non-Han Chinese in those two regions.

    Would the 9-10 million Uyghurs living in Xinjiang agree with your third-to-last paragraph as well? How about the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan leader, technically a Chinese by race, and still respected as the Tibetan spiritual leader, at least in the way my countrymen and I have been educated.

    The common thread is not about an allegiance to governments, rather an anti-allegiance to the government headquartered in Peking. The reason is that this government doesn’t need to show it is treacherous by failing to secure these small islands, rather it has unfortunately already earned this dishonour, due to its ‘human rights’ history relating not only to the minorities (Tibet, Xinjiang), but Han themselves (1989, FG, activists, executions).

  2. Very interesting comments from Zhengxu and Sam on the “Greater China” elements in this campaign, Chinese nationalists from Hong Kong or Taiwan who are also opponents of the PRC’s present national government. There was a good piece in the FT (28 August 2012) by Enid Tsui on Tsang Kin-shing, “The Bull”, a Hong Kong activist who took part in the Diaoyu protest and who is banned from entering the mainland because of his pro-democracy activities. He is quoted as saying “I cannot enter the country I love because the Beijing dictatorship is against free thinking”. Willy Lam is also quoted on what people like Tsang in the Chinese diaspora really mean when they say they love China.

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