Recently, you may have heard much about the conflict in the Diaoyu or Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. You may be confused by notion of “Why is China and more recently Taiwan so concerned about a group of islands that didn’t belong to them anyway?”
After all, it is simply a real estate deal between the Japanese government and a private Japanese business. Normally, it would not have created such an international conflict had it been done in another location. Many might argue, why go crazy over some pieces of rock. However, the three most important words in real estate are location, location and location. The media has been pumping up the importance of this dispute because of the rising significance of China on the global stage, so much so that it appeared on the cover of the Economist. It appears that much of the heat will subside in the coming weeks. It may be just the case of a few leadership changes taking place at the same time which prompted some statement-making sabre rattling, lots of growling but no biting. However, as the Economist pointed out, each time an incident occurs, the parties become more cynical and edges ever closer to pulling the trigger. However, these days, the economic repercussions of such acts would outweigh the reasons to use force. As the United States can tell you, wars have become a lot more expensive these days. Therefore, for China to go to war with anyone can be become a disaster. And simply, it doesn’t make good business sense to go to war with one of your biggest trading partners. But then, you might wonder, why are there so many anti-Japanese riots in China over this? There are a couple of reasons.
Many pundits and historians like Niall Ferguson may have referenced the current Chinese situation to the emergence of Imperial Germany in the beginning of the 20th century. However, such references might be inaccurate.
Historically, the Japanese has had a more formal ownership over these islands and the Chinese and the Taiwanese never really declared ownership until recently. Many might suspect that the conflict is over the fishing rights or the supposed oil reserves under the seabed. You can look up the history of the dispute on Wikipedia as well as the different positions.
Over the centuries, China and Japan have not been the most peaceful of neighbors. There have been military conflicts going back many centuries with the most recent being World War II. The same thing can be seen here in Poland with how the Poles see the Germans and the Russians. The Poles make a big issue over Katyn and the occupation and rightly so. At the same time, the Chinese make a big deal about the Japanese occupation of China during the beginning of the 20th century. In school, we are taught about the Japanese atrocities from the first class. The Battle of Nanking in 1937 can be analogous to the Warsaw Uprising in 1944 in the amount of damage caused. However, the Japanese caused more unspeakable atrocities in the aftermath than the Nazi soldiers. China has also seen previous empire building activities of Japan in the end of the 19th century which ended quite embarrassingly for the Chinese. Going back even further, due to the loss of the Opium War with Britain and other military conflicts, China had also lost much of control to major European powers in about the same period. I was also taught this in first class in history class. As you can see, Chinese humiliation at the hands of foreigners has been ingrained into our sub-conscious from a very early age.
The internet is a very powerful tool. The world is much more connected now than it was, both technologically and economically. There are currently over 500 million users of internet in China. About 300 million of those have a social networking account. Sites like Weibo and Ren-Ren have done something that the students in Tiananmen Square couldn’t, which is to connect people over vast distances. These people with accounts are called micro-bloggers. Ever wonder why they are called micro-blogs? In English 140 characters might be a couple of sentences, in Polish and German maybe a few words. However, in Chinese, 140 characters might be a paragraph or could be the summary of a story. As a result, each “tweet” can be kind of like a small blog, hence micro-blog.
One thing you have to know about China is that things go exponential in China. A small issue in a European country might translate to a major problem in China due to the size of the Chinese population. In Youtube, if you get one million views, you have gone viral. But in China, going viral can translate to over 10 million views. Currently, the majority of the youth spend much of their time on-line. Consequently, they are connected in more ways than ever. They are either playing virtual games similar to World of Warcraft or micro-blogging or just watching videos on Tudou or Youku. In this way, they are satisfying one of the levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the need to belong. Like the starlings that you see in the sky at dusk, the web of connections create an uber-organism. When something catches hold, the whole crowd follows. When you combine a sensitive topic of Japanese imperialism and the undefined borders of a group of islands and a well-connected collection of people, something bad could happen. And it did. A lack of western social networking websites in China didn’t seem to be such a problem after all. China just clones them.
So what is the take away? One thing that might prevent future conflicts is to teach the boat captains and crews to drive the boats better and safer. Many of the recent conflicts revolve boats crashing into each other. We might try to make the territory an international space with regulations on how the area will be fished. I doubt China will want to start any military action in this region due to the fact that the United States had vowed to come to the defense of Japan and Taiwan if China tries anything. The big issue is the power of the internet-connected population of young people. They are gaining momentum; they are becoming more educated; they desire more and more; they are the group that is the backbone of the current Chinese economic machine; and they are the future of China. The conflict over some islands might pass, but what to do with this rising cyber nationalism and how to keep it sedated and under control. I believe that is the major issue not being discussed.
Paul Chen – Graduated with a Masters of Science from St. Johns University in the United States. Taught science in New York City and the Czech Republic. Born in Taiwan and grew up in the United States. Has been living in the CEE region for the last six and a half years. Has an interest in the politics of the United States, Taiwan, and to some extent China and Poland. Can be seen teaching both Chinese and English in Krakow. Languages: English, Mandarin and German.