“The whole world’s Chinese people are going”: decisive moments, and the perils of Diaoyu nationalismPosted: August 19, 2012
Located to the northeast of Taiwan, just under halfway to Okinawa, the Diaoyus have been controlled by Japan since the first Sino-Japanese War in 1895. China (both of them) claims that the islands were imperial Chinese territory before that, so Japan’s annexation of them in 1895 was an illegal land grab, and that they should have been returned to China at the end of WWII under the Potsdam Declaration.
The Diaoyus are not tiny coral atolls like the Spratlys and Paracels. They are (well, five of the eight features) genuine islands, albeit barren and uninhabited. Like the South China Sea islands, however, there’s believed to be black-gold in their bellies.
While the competition for the oil and gas resources can basically explain the two sides’ determination to claim sovereignty, on the Diaoyu the influence of nationalistic public opinion on the Chinese government’s behaviour appears more significant than on the South China Sea. To begin with, the public ill-will on both sides is deep-seated and getting worse, and political opportunists have the opportunity and motive encourage and exploit this.
The ICG’s Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt recently commented that the leaders of China and Japan have little “political capital” to spend on defying “nationalist or populist sentiment”. In this excellent interview, SKA identifies nationalist sentiment as a constraint on governments’ ability to compromise or back down during a dispute. There are counter-examples where Chinese and Japanese leaders have appeared to defy pressure to be uncooperative and confrontational, such as Noda’s government’s speedy release of the recent protagonists, and China’s decision not to send patrol boats to guard them. But the two countries’ recent record suggests this has been difficult at times in the past.
Public opinion offers an explanation for what learned observers consider to be China’s counterproductively hardline stance in the previous Diaoyu confrontation in September 2010 (itself a response to Japan’s abnormally trenchant action in detaining an infringing Chinese fishing boat captain for several weeks rather than releasing him swiftly, as they did yesterday). And the ill-will on the part of both publics may have had a lot to do with the non-implementation of a deal negotiated back in 2008 for cooperative development of some of the oil and gas deposits in the area.
Nationalist activists on both sides are true believers in their cause, so even where their actions may be deliberately incited and/or tacitly sanctioned by their governments, they nonetheless impact the dispute by necessitating responses from the other side. Once the Qifeng-2 escaped the clutches of the Hong Kong police and sailed beyond the reach of the PRC authorities, for example, Beijing had little or no control over whether the passengers of the Qifeng-2 would actually manage to set foot on the island last Wednesday.
At the same time, the PRC government has on numerous occasions proved willing and capable of preventing Diaoyu activists from making their journey in the first place, whether in Hong Kong or on the way to the Diaoyus. This suggests that where Chinese citizens’ action has an impact, a decision to allow this must be made at some level of leadership — which could be made as low as a local PRC Coastguard official, a China Maritime Surveillance branch commander or as high as the Politburo Standing Committee.
Such decisions have certain easily foreseeable outcomes (a diplomatic incident of some kind was almost inevitable once the Qifeng-2 left PRC-controlled waters) yet their exact consequences in international politics are unpredictable. Moreover, these leadership choices occur in a domestic political context, which in China includes not only party politics and ideology, but also domestic nationalist discourse — what groups of people are thinking about where the country is or should be going.
The recent episode illustrates vividly what a dynamic and contested process of simultaneous group interpretation and elite engineering ‘nationalism’ really is.
Take the above photo, for example — taken at the critical moment when the activists jumped ashore. Is the ROC flag something to be proud of, or ashamed? Is its appearance here a symbol of Chinese unity or division?
Weibo’s microbloggers appeared to see it more as a sign of cross-straits collaboration, enthusiastically forwarding it around as proof that the activists had made it onto the island. According to Weiboscope, it was at time of writing the most-forward image of the incident.
The PRC internet authorities also don’t seem to object to its dissemination, intact, on Weibo and other online news sources (see here and here). In stark contrast, however, the propaganda authorities overseeing China’s print media clearly saw it very differently to the online public, for among China’s main newspapers the ROC flag was either cropped out, crudely paint-bucketed red, or otherwise blotted out in very nearly every instance (among hundreds of covers on Abbao i found only one exception, the obscure Yimeng Evening News). The same was the case on mainland TV.
This might have had something to do with the gloating the official media have recently been engaging in over the fact that a group of Diaoyu activists from Taiwan last month waved a PRC flag to proclaim sovereignty from seas near the islands — even though they got an escort from the ROC Coastguard.
There was also perhaps the inconvenient fact that this time around the ROC authorities had pressured local activists into abandoning their trip and refused all but the most elementary assistance to the Qifeng-2 when it tried to stop past on its way from Hong Kong to the Diaoyus. According to the Global Times (English):
Earlier on Tuesday, the ship anchored in the waters near Taichung, after the local marine authority denied their application to reach land. The activists were only able to procure limited freshwater supplies.
The news on Tuesday that activists from Fujian who had wanted to join the expedition had canceled their plans due to “reasons of weather and procedure” also raised the question of exactly which of the ‘three regions’ (Taiwan, Hong Kong and the PRC) actually represents the Chinese people best. The top comments on Phoenix’s 111,000+ participant thread for ‘Mainland activists cancel trip to Diaoyu, citing weather and procedures‘:
“I know the reason you can’t go, I understand, backup is lacking, speechless.” [11,790 recommends]
“Clearly a crock of shit. Whoever believes it has got water in their brain.” 
“Such a loss of face………speechless. Support the Hong Kong and Taiwan compatriots.” 
“The whole world’s Chinese people are going, it’s just the mainland…” 
Once again, the idea of the PRC government’s rule being based on anything that can be usefully understood as “nationalist legitimacy” appears questionable. And the idea that the party-state is trying to build up such “nationalistic legitimacy” via its foreign policy actions looks patently absurd.
“This is the Hong Kong people that Kong Qingdong said are running dogs! Is he cross-eyed?” [17,489]
The other widely-circulated decisive-moment photograph from the scene of the confrontation further illustrates how deficient in nationalistic credentials the PRC state is:
This stunning image cast the Chinese activists in an intensely helpless position. When i first saw it i couldn’t believe that it was real; Photoshop-wielding nationalist students wanting to raise a rabble could hardly have done better. Taken by a Japanese photographer for the Yoimuri Shimbun, it makes the two Japanese Coastguard boats look positively evil.
But it also rams the viewer with an almost unavoidable question: why was no-one there to help?
The giant comment threads on the portals indicate that exactly this kind of question is in the forefront of many ordinary PRC people as they read the news on the internet.
Perhaps this contributed the speed and fervour with which Sunday’s protesters turned their destructive powers onto the authorities: