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INTERNATIONAL > East Asia & Pacific

Changing Chinese people’s views of Japan

BEIJING — This August will mark the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Japan-China Peace and Friendship Treaty. The Yomiuri Shimbun spoke with Ma Licheng, one of the most celebrated critics who is a former commentator for the People’s Daily newspaper in China, about the improving relations between the two countries. The following is an excerpt from the interview.


The Yomiuri Shimbun: What is China’s current stance in regard to Japan?


Ma Licheng: The trade war with the United States has begun, and China is in a difficult situation. To lessen the risk of being closed in upon by adversaries from the front and back, and to advance high-quality development, China needs to improve relations with Japan. Japan is also under economic pressure from the United States. There are reasons for China and Japan to enjoy a closer relationship.


Q: Japan prioritizes relations with its ally the United States.


A: Without a doubt, Japan is not going to abandon the Japan-U.S. alliance. But perhaps it could also consider a moderate level of diversification [rather than staunchly seeking a pro-U.S. diplomacy]. Japan is now constructive in improving its relations with China, which is a huge market. Expectations in the business sector are particularly high.


Q: Is Chinese President Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power impacting the improvement of Japan-China relations?


A: In China, relations with Japan are a sensitive issue [easily manipulated for power struggles and prone to public criticism]. Both courage and drive are required in order to further reconciliation with Japan. It cannot be achieved without the support of all sectors and that of the people, too. The power that Xi has gained will assist him in opening up a new phase of China-Japan relations.


Q: Is it no longer necessary to consider the views of former President Jiang Zemin and his allies [whose anti-Japanese sentiment is strong]?


A: Their views need to be considered. Promoting reconciliation between China and Japan is not easy. Obstructions definitely exist. In particular, I am thinking about objections and pressure from the people. A politician who has not consolidated his or her power cannot break down the powers that hinder this. Xi is currently groping for a solution to relations with Japan. He is careful. I think he is watching for an opportunity to make a breakthrough.


Japan through Chinese eyes


Q: Do you have a better outlook on the bilateral relationship?


A: A major opportunity for reconciliation between China and Japan has also been generated outside of the realm of economic interests and dealings with the United States. By this I mean the Chinese tourists traveling to Japan, whose numbers may exceed a total of 8 million this year. The image Chinese people held of Japan came to a standstill at the point of World War II, with the one-sided publicity found in war movies, TV serials and the like. However, over the past few years, we have seen tens of millions of Chinese tourists make visits to Japan and immediately change their view of the country. They can see that Japan is a prosperous, safe and clean country, and its people are polite. They see that it is convenient to get around and that there are plenty of products. Many of these people belong to the urban middle class and they are expressing their admiration for the Japan that they see.


Q: This is an unprecedented phenomenon.


A: This is the first time that Chinese society has witnessed the people expressing their heartfelt praise for Japan. A new kind of public opinion has come into being in China. These people are not dancing to the tune of the authorities. They perceive Japan for themselves — sensing the country through their own eyes, their own hands. Their heartfelt admiration for Japan represents their approval of Japanese society and the various fruits it has borne. It is a voluntary change in values. I feel that this will form the foundation for a long-term friendship between China and Japan.


Q: This is a situation where the people are influencing the authorities.


A: Indeed. The policy known as promoting government relations via people-to-people exchange is a tradition in Chinese diplomacy. This new public opinion will act as strong support for Xi in taking a new step in opening up a new age for relations between the two countries.


Nationalism remains hurdle


Q: Meanwhile, anxieties about Xi’s concentration of power also exist.


A: Mao Zedong [the founder of the People’s Republic of China] normalized diplomatic relations between China and Japan. Deng Xiaoping, who promoted reform and open up programs, also did his utmost to develop relations with Japan. Xi hopes to develop China-Japan relations in the same way as these two figures, who were at the height of power.


Q: The cornerstone of the Japan-China friendship treaty was the idea of anti-hegemony. Anxieties about China are strong in present-day Japan.


A: No matter how much China declares that it will “never ever assume hegemony,” there will always be people who doubt this. Philosophies and traditions that cherish peace have been in the blood of the Chinese people since ancient times.


Q: Fears arise from actual issues such as those in the East and South China seas.


A: China must understand that neighboring countries are fearful of it.


Q: What is the real reason true reconciliation between Japan and China has not been realized so far?


A: One of the obstacles is nationalism. China was invaded by Japan. Nationalistic feelings are stronger than in Japan. In both countries, there are people who use this for their own purposes. This is not a problem unique to China or Japan. It is a problem that is faced worldwide.


Q: What do you hope Japan will do?


A: I want Japan to better understand the feelings of the Chinese people that arose from the damage inflicted during the war. At the same time, I want Japan to continue opening doors to Chinese tourists and to further promote cooperation in the economic arena.


— This interview was conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Writer Hiroyuki Sugiyama


(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, July 11, 2018)


■ Ma Licheng / Ex-Commentator for the People’s Daily


Ma worked for the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of China, and for many years criticized leftist forces and nationalism for obstructing reforms. His essay titled “A New Mode of Thinking on China’s Relations with Japan” is highly regarded in both countries. He is 71.

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