By Kang Su-Jeong.

Sino-Japanese relations have experienced ups and downs over the past decade. Mounting tensions between the two countries has been accompanied by outbursts of anti-Japanese sentiment in China. The Chinese government’s response to such nationalist outbursts has not always been consistent. While the government has made use of nationalism for its domestic and/or international gains, there has been a fear that the public’s nationalist passions and resentment may turn against the CCP leadership itself when it is perceived as being insufficiently strong to uphold Chinese national interests and pride. The Chinese government is well aware that nationalism is a double-edged sword, and thus has managed popular expressions of nationalist sentiment astutely through the skillful use of appeasement and repression.

Based on its foreign policy and domestic considerations, Beijing has adopted three different types of approach to public expressions of anti-Japanese sentiment and opinion: 1) tolerance or leniency, 2) tight control or suppression and 3) a two-pronged approach. When the political leadership had more incentive to burnish its nationalist credentials and appeared to lack internal consensus concerning the conduct of its relations with Japan, the authorities displayed a greater tolerance of or a more lenient attitude towards public anti-Japanese outbursts. However, when the leadership pursued a moderate and cooperative approach to Japan and had greater concerns about social stability, it sought to suppress or control anti-Japan public sentiment, voices and actions to avoid jeopardizing its efforts to maintain good relations with Japan as well as social stability. By contrast, when the leadership sought a tougher stance in the handling of dispute with Japan, it adopted a two-pronged approach to nationalist outpourings by selectively allowing (or tolerating) some mass anti-Japanese protests to increase pressure on Japan whilst simultaneously making efforts to avoid such outbursts from spiraling out of control.

The authorities’ suppression and tight control of nationalist sentiment has led to a narrowing of political opportunity for the nationalistic public to make their voices heard. However, Beijing’s tolerance or selective allowance of anti-Japanese popular protests for its domestic and/or international gains caused the Chinese government itself to face a dilemma by leading to a widening of political opportunity for the public to affect the government’s policy towards Japan. Anti-Japanese popular nationalism was able to play a greater role in China’s approach towards Japan when the public took advantage of the political opportunity created by the authorities’ tolerance to express their nationalist feelings and opinions in a collective way and to push Beijing into displaying a more assertive stance in the handling of relations with Japan.

Tensions between China and Japan over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands have flared up since the Japanese central government purchased three of the islands from a Japanese private owner to nationalize them in last autumn. The Japanese move was claimed to pre-empt the impending purchase of the islands by Tokyo’s right-wing governor, Ishihara Shintaro, and to maintain them in a stable manner. Nevertheless, Japan’s nationalization of the contested islands has not only generated strong opposition from the Chinese government but it has also inflamed ever-present anti-Japanese sentiment among the Chinese populace.

The Chinese government apparently tolerated anti-Japanese public protests at the beginning. The popular protests were not only made use of to increase pressure on Japan but also provided the public with outlets to vent their simmering anger and irritation at Japan as a safety valve. Additionally, it was right before the once-in-a-decade leadership transition when both the outgoing and incoming Chinese leaders were more eager to burnish their nationalist credentials. In this context, by taking the political opportunity created by the government’s tolerance, hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets in more than 100 cities throughout China to express their anger against Japan’s act. It was after the demonstrations turned violent, with acts of vandalism, that the public safety authorities deployed armed police to disperse the protesters. The outburst of anti-Japanese nationalist sentiments and opinions contributed to a harsher response by the Chinese government to Japan in the handling of the dispute.

Dispite efforts by the Chinese authorities to ease them, anti-Japanese sentiment in China still remains quite strong, which significantly limits Beijing’s available options to ease tensions over the territorial row. By appearing too keen to re-engage with Japan, Beijing may suffer a backlash from an angry public. There are few signs of the mounting tensions being defused so far. The diplomatic tit-for-tat between Beijing and Tokyo seems likely to continue until the two sides find a mutually acceptable resolution of the dispute which would save their faces in front of their peoples.

Su-Jeong Kang is a PhD candidate in the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham.


  1. Hi Su-Jeong and thanks for this excellent, succinct description of the emerging model for the relationship between (tolerance for) nationalist action and the Party-state’s foreign policy actions.

    I would like to ask, however, what evidence do we have that the 2012 mobilizations actually “push[ed] Beijing into displaying a more assertive stance in the handling of relations with Japan”?

    What would be some examples of more assertive actions that Beijing took as a result of this pushing from public opinion?

    Because if, as scenario 3 implies, the authorities chose to allow nationalist mobilizations partly in order to increase pressure on Japan, then their other assertive actions (such as extra CMS & FLEC patrols) could also be adequately explained as part of the same effort to pressure Japan, couldn’t they?

    Moreover, later escalations from the PRC side, such as the December 13 CMS plane flight in the Diaoyu 12nm zone, occurred months after the mobilizations had ceased. To me, that looks like evidence that the PRC’s assertive stance existed(/exists) independently of nationalist mobilizations. What’s your take?

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