Panda Wars

Rising Tensions in Sino-Japanese Relations

By Fred Hill

A newborn panda is not an adorable thing, but China Daily was doing its best when it ran a photo of a Tokyo zoo’s newest addition this past summer. Pandas grow their distinctive black-and-white fur about two weeks after birth. Before then, they are pink, blind and toothless, about as cute and sentient as a sea-cucumber.

The panda was two days old when the photo was taken, and had succumbed to pneumonia in Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo, its death inciting friction in Chinese-Japanese relations. The reasons for its passing were couched in no uncertain terms by the strong editorial voice of China Daily: “Chinese zoologists have spent dozens of years developing related technology and skills,” the article ends, quoting an expert in giant pandas, Wu Kongju. “Our foreign peers should try hard to learn as well in order to raise the survival rate of giant pandas abroad.”

The commentary from Chinese on the web seethes with outrage at the perceived mistreatment of the panda, blaming the Japanese for the death of a nationally revered animal. The accusations leveled at Japan range in severity from negligence to murderous spite. One commenter constructed a four-part condemnation of the Japanese, citing their illegal whale-hunting, their aggression towards environmental activists, and the recent death of another Chinese panda in a Japanese zoo. Their final piece of evidence was a somewhat jarring recollection of the “brutalities and atrocities in WWII…rap[ing] and murder[ing] many innocent Asian women…their whitewashing and denying.” The argument triumphantly concludes that the Japanese “are cruel with deliberative to destroy any offspring born in that nation! China, don’t waste your treasures!”

Clearly, the repercussions of this panda’s death extend beyond comparative standards of zoological care. In this case, the stridency of the comments can be somewhat justified by the mischievous suggestion from Tokyo’s hyper-nationalistic governor Shintaro Ishihara that the baby be named after the Senkaku Islands, uninhabited islands in the East China Sea whose disputed ownership has become central to broader Sino-Japanese geopolitical tensions. The Senkaku, called the Diaoyu in China, are claimed by both China and Japan on the basis of geography and politics. Japan asserts that the islands were incorporated into their territory after the 1895 Sino-Japanese war. China cites its long history of fishing nearby the islands as well as the islands being within China’s 200 mile exclusive economic zone, if you account for the continental shelf.

In the 1970s, the Japanese government, unable to find humans willing to live on the islands, released a herd of goats. The goats have thrived, becoming an enormous feral herd. Nationalist agitators have found the island equally fertile. In 2010, the collision of a Japanese Coast Guard vessel and a Chinese fishing boat caused a wave of anti-Japanese protests across China. The current situation is even more extreme.

Recently, the Japanese government purchased and nationalized three of the islands, apparently in order to block private development. Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency, calls this purchase “a serious infringement of China’s territorial rights, an affront to the feelings of 1.3 billion Chinese, and a serious abuse of both historical fact and international law.”

Within China, widespread support was expressed for an ad proclaiming the Chinese rights to the Diaoyu, put in the New York Times by eccentric entrepreneur Chen Guangbiao. “Boss Chen,” known for selling canned air, became an internet hero having “fulfilled his duty as a patriotic entrepreneur, and playing an important role in the fight against Japanese invasion/plunder [of the Diaoyu Islands].”

Taiwan’s further claim on the island complicates the matter and cannot be untangled from the question of its independence. In an odd echo of this panda-naming debacle 2006, China revved up internal publicity for its offer of two pandas to Taiwan by holding a contest to name them. The names chosen were Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan, riffing off the Chinese word for “unity,” a word they wish Taiwan would embrace. Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian countered with names that translated as “independence” and “nation-building” and tried to reject what he called “Trojan pandas.” The political implications were significant, as China has declared giving pandas internationally is illegal, and Taiwan’s accepting the gift would reinforce its status as a Chinese territory.

But Chen’s successor, President Ma Ying-jeou, took the pandas in 2008. His panda compromise indicates a flexibility that Chinese and Japanese politicians lack. Ma’s recent proposal for an East China Sea Peace Initiative would leave behind the question of territorial claims and focus on the possibility of mutually beneficial development. The energy potential is insignificant compared to the contested areas in the South China Sea. The two countries’ objectives are distinct, though: China is attracted to the area’s strategic location near several cities with high energy demand, while Japan, with few resources of its own, is willing to take anything. Furthermore, the way energy development issues are resolved may indicate the turn of events elsewhere.

In 2008, Japan and China put a “principled consensus” into place, outlining plans for a joint development zone and tentative negotiations toward a treaty. But the consensus was essentially a gentleman’s agreement, reliant on the two nations’ goodwill. Since that time, with the 2010 collision of a Chinese fishing boat with a Japanese coast guard and the current island purchases, relations have moved from sulky courtesy to open hostility. It’s unlikely that Japan and China will cooperate in developing this zone, but there are more troubling implications. Antagonistic nationalism has seized both countries, and in China, it seems like a manifestation of a coherent and deeply-rooted enmity rather than the result of recent events.

Popular Chinese indignation at the aggression of the “cruel, barbaric” Japanese people is also directed internally, at the passivity of the Chinese government. Some have speculated anti-Japanese sentiments have been exacerbated by the Chinese government as distraction from more valid economic and political issues. They may have created a monster outside of their control, as their state police force clashes with protesters. If, on the other hand, this is the public’s spontaneous reaction, the state, at this transitional moment, must decide whether to pander to it or not.

The Internet unrest stemming from a baby panda’s late-summer death has spilled out into an autumn of real-world anti-Japanese riots, protests and boycotts. In 1972, a gift of two giant pandas from China to America signified China’s new receptivity to economic cooperation with the West. The death of this baby panda could invert the symbol: China allowing nationalistic resentment to sabotage economic growth and access to new energy sources. The Internet commentary on the picture featured by China Daily warns of the enduring power of an image of Chinese victimhood.

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