Yesterday (May 20), a 23-member medical from Japan showed up in Chengdu to help out with the relief work. The Chinese authorities had filed an official request the previous day. We seem to be the first in line, yet again. Meanwhile, the Japanese rescue team is returning home today, to glowing praise from Chinese authorities. According to the Sankei, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang praised the rescue team for “undertaking rescue operations with all their might, based on the noble spirit of humanitarianism and magnificent professionalism” and “express[ed China’s] respect and gratitude”*.
The Chinese authorities and their public communications outlets are trying really, really hard, and it seems to be working. This photo** showing the Japanese rescue team mourning for two victims whose body they retrieved in particular has touched the hearts of the denizens of Chinese Internet forums, the hotbed of grassroots nationalism and often virulent anti-Japanese sentiment. According to this Yomiuri report, the comments have been overwhelmingly in favor of the rescue team and by extension Japan; hateful comments are being shouted down, so to speak.
All this is good for the bilateral relationship. China is a status quo power whose overriding concern is social and political stability, so this is obviously not a passing fad. This is part and parcel of the bilateral efforts that began no later than in 2006, and flows directly from Hu Jintao’s recognition in Tokyo of Good Japan throughout the 60-odd post WW II years***. Still, the thoroughness of the exclusive charm offensive—Taiwan, perhaps; but would Russia and South Korea have even been asked if the Chinese authorities hadn’t decided to use the “vicinity and convenience” fig leaf?—and its effectiveness where their domestic constituency is concerned leave me a little uneasy. Perceptions that can be changed with what is, after all, nothing more than a set of small, symbolic gestures, can also be reversed in an instant.
Do you think that if a Japanese Prime Minister ever amassed enough political capital at home to make a pilgrimage to Nanjing, all theese little things, both positive and, yes, negative—Prime Minister Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni, for instance—would become part of the daily flow of things, to be taken in stride? And we will be allowed to tell our own histories, as many of them as there are?
* My translation of the Japanese Sankei quotes. The full English text of the press conference should be up on China’s Foreign Ministry website in a couple of days.
** The Xinhua website has many other photos regarding the earthquake, including two sets of images of the Japanese rescue team. There’s also one set for Russia. I cannot find the South Korean team. Taiwan may be camouflaged as “overseas Chinese”.
*** Note that Wen Jiabao “accidentally” skipped the following crucial passage while reading his 2007 April 12 speech to the Japanese Diet:
The people of China takes a positive view of the fact that the Japan took the path of peaceful development after the War.
The “accident” likely had something to do with the fact that the event was being telecast live to China. The leadership was not quite ready until Mr. Hu’s visit, as Professor Toshihiko Kinoshita reminded me yesterday in a different context.