Sunday, November 02, 2003

Panem et Circenses, or Japan Bashing as Therapy

The Chinese government has long found it convenient to play upon Japanese misdeeds in the earlier part of this century whenever a suitable occasion has arisen, conveniently ignoring the reality that no body of people has inflicted more suffering on the Chinese people over the last hundred years than those belonging to the Chinese Communist Party itself. Nevertheless, it appears that the Chinese populace can always be counted on to fall for the bait.

In the history of comical flops, few pranks can have gone down quite so badly as the fake-genital skit performed by three Japanese students in China's Northwest University.

Camping it up in red bras and knickers bulging with paper cups, the performers must have been expecting guffaws or at least shy giggles from the freshmen and faculty they were entertaining at a welcoming party for new students.

Instead, they sparked an anti-Japanese demonstration by thousands of fellow students, internet death threats, and articles in the national media accusing them of attempting to humiliate China and its people.

The outcry sparked by the innocuous display of student humour this week is the latest and most bizarre in a series of public demonstrations against anything Japanese - one of the few issues on which the Chinese government appears ready to tolerate large-scale protests.

According to the state-run news service Xinhua, the performance at the party for foreign language students in Xian, western China, included three Japanese students and a teacher wearing brassieres and false genitals made from paper cups hanging from their waists. They danced "obscenely" and threw scraps of paper pulled from their underwear at the audience.

The audience of conservative students and professors called a stop to the high jinks. If the performers had been Chinese, Russian or European, that would probably have been the end of the matter. But the fact that they were Japanese turned a cultural misunderstanding into an international incident.

Several thousand Chinese students gathered in front of the university's foreign students' dormitory on Thursday to demand that the Japanese offenders apologise. Yesterday hundreds continued to protest, shouting anti-Japanese slogans and waving banners, according to witnesses.

Officially sanctioned Japan-bashing serves the same purpose in China as anti-Americanism and antisemitism do in the Middle East: they give the population an easy out for all the frustrations they experience in their daily lives, while sparing both the populace and the authorities who misrule them the burden of undergoing any real introspection as to the true sources of their difficulties. The Japan of today is about as different a society from that of the pre-war era as it is possible to get, and the Japanese are even more averse to the use of force in international relations than the Germans are. To pretend that every faux-pas the Japanese make must be a sign of ill-will, as the Chinese love to do, is nothing more than an outrageous self-deception, and one which I suspect those engaging in it must themselves be aware of at some level - hence the outsized histrionics. Methinks the Chinese doth protest a tad too much to be entirely genuine in their outrage.