Did Somebody Say Japan?

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Recently I spoke with Dai Qing, a Chinese writer and environmental activist, to get her thoughts on the current surge of nationalism in China. She said that it reminded her of 1966, the year that the Cultural Revolution started, which struck me as hyperbolic. Certainly there are parallels. Both are largely youth movements that emphasize extreme rhetoric. But the differences are more glaring, namely that the current outburst has been peaceful. Or at least it was when Dai Qing and I talked. Now it’s emerged that at least one violent incident has occurred. The website Shanghaiist is reporting that a young American teacher was attacked by a crowd after leaving a Carrefour in Hunan last weekend. (Shanghaiist has since updated with comments from the teacher who says “I was not in fact attacked by a mob at all but very slightly and unsuccessfully by one youth.”)

One attack does not make a Cultural Revolution, but it is an indicator of how easily things can get out of hand. Beijing has been calm these past few days, and the government is trying to tone down the fury. But it elsewhere the protests have been heated. Protesters in China are targeting against the French hypermarket chain Carrefour because of the rough treatment of the Olympic torch and torchbearers during its Paris leg. The Australian leg of the relay was held today in Canberra, where it was met by large-scale pro-China rallies. It was one of the last overseas stops of the Olympic torch relay before it travels back to China for a journey across the country.

It will be interesting to see how the torch will be greeted on its Japanese leg, which will be held Saturday. Nagano is already taking steps to limit public access to the relay. China’s relationship with its former occupier is one of its most sensitive, and the response to rowdy demonstrations there could be far worse than what happened after Paris. Already one Japanese monastery has bowed out of hosting the torch because of security worries and the interests of monks and worshipers who support the Tibetan cause. And Tuesday a group of Japanese lawmakers visited the Yasukuni shrine, which honors the country’s war dead, including a handful of war criminals from World War II. Such visits invariably anger Beijing, and last night state television gave it extensive play.

Could that be setting the stage for further indignation over the reception of the torch? China’s ambassador to Japan says the relay leg could deepen the relationship between the two nations. It hasn’t produced much in the way of deepening relationships so far. In the case of Japan, let’s hope the ambassador is right.