In recent decades, anti-Japanese nationalism has grown into an important feature of Chinese popular discourse and at times caused serious strains in bilateral official relations.
Yet China’s view of its neighbour and sometimes adversary Japan, though embedded in longstanding attitudes, has nonetheless oscillated between sympathy and hatred over the decades.
However, defining Japan as this “other” has not been a constant in China. While China’s traumatic wars with Japan should have brought about constant anti-Japanese hatred over time, in the initial period after each major war with Japan, Chinese national identity was never primarily centered around animosity against Japan but against some other enemies.
Following China’s humiliating defeat in the first Sino-Japanese War in 1894–1895, she writes, “modern Chinese nationalism burst forth, but a large segment of Chinese elite, especially Sun Yat-sen and his revolutionary comrades, embraced Meiji Japan as a model of modernization and source of aid for revolution.”
Instead, they focused on ridding the country of the Manchu ruling class, defined as non-Han ethnic foreigners.
Therefore, it was not coincidental that Sun Yat-sen, who would in 1911 lead the revolution to end imperial rule and create a Chinese republic, adopted the platform of driving out the Manchus to restore Chinese rule in 1894.
Like many Chinese nationalists, he was also a pan-Asianist, advocating that all Asians, connected by common race and cultural heritage, should unite against Western imperialism. Chinese elites formed an image of Japan as a fraternal neighbour.
Only after the First World War, when Japan began to place humiliating demands on a weak Chinese state, was anti-Japanese fervour included in a rising tide of anti-imperials feeling, also directed against European powers.
What caused a great disillusion among Chinese nationalists about fraternity with Japan were the “21 Demands” raised by Japan in 1915, designed to give Japan regional ascendancy over China.
This was followed by the agreement between the victorious Western powers, in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, to transfer defeated Germany’s concessions in China to Japan.
According to Oxford University professor Rana Mitter, author of China’s War With Japan, 1937-1945: The Struggle for Survival, Chinese national identity in this period was actually anchored at the “defining fundamental fissure” between the Chinese Communists and the capitalists, rather than an ethnocentric nationalism directed at Japan.
In 1972, 27 years after the war, the two countries normalized their diplomatic relationship, and formed a loose strategic alignment targeted at the Soviet Union.
Anti-Japanese nationalism only began in the early 1980s, about ten years after the two countries had a normalized diplomatic relationship and had developed weighty economic ties and close societal contacts with one another.
Domestic Chinese politics was the main cause of the change. From the early 1980s, Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms after the Cultural Revolution increased inflation, unemployment, corruption, and crime.
Patriotism replaced the discredited Communist ideology of class struggle as the centrepiece of a new Chinese national identity, with Japan now singled out as the main cause of the nation’s decades of “national humiliation.”
The new narrative also tried to foster a sense of solidarity between mainland China and Taiwan, itself a former colony of Japan, and to justify the goal of national unification, another major pillar of the Communist regime’s legitimacy.
Thus, the memory of past wars with Japan was resurrected and politicized.
Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.