In the minutes following the assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe this month, there was an outpouring of concern and outrage from leaders around the world.
In China, however, there was a torrent of messages on the Internet of a different kind. “Hope the shooter is okay,” said one. Another popular meme read, “President Kennedy visits Shinzo Abe.
As tens of millions of Japanese awaited news of Abe’s whereabouts, some in China called his attacker a “hero” and others sent him their “warm congratulations”.
After the 67-year-old was confirmed dead, owners of some small Chinese restaurants and car builders offered discounts to mark the “happy” occasion.
The posts were insensitive and offensive to many observers and highlighted a deep strain of anti-Japanese sentiment that has lingered in China for decades after Tokyo’s brutal invasion of the last century.
Even though Beijing’s political leaders, state media and censors appear to have stepped in to dampen the response, the episode was a clear reminder of the patriotic mobs that can dominate the Chinese internet.
Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, said it was “understandable” that Chinese people are still troubled by atrocities such as the Nanjing Massacre, as well as Abe’s visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan’s war dead, including some convicted war criminals.
But the celebration of the former prime minister’s assassination “says a lot about the degree of toxicity of Chinese nationalism – which the Chinese Communist Party has only to blame”.
“In the minds of those who celebrated his death, Abe was not a tragically killed human being, but a symbol of remorseless Japanese imperialism,” she said.
“In the long run, ordering the Chinese people to hate an outside enemy serves to distract them from examining the CCP’s failure to rule the country.”
In statements reported by Chinese state media on July 9, the day after the shooting, President Xi Jinping offered his condolences, saying he and Abe had “reached an important consensus” on the relationship. And he expressed hope for “good neighbourliness, friendly and cooperative” ties with Fumio Kishida, the prime minister.
According to Henry Gao, a China scholar at Singapore Management University, Beijing recognizes that citizens’ “hatred” of Japan can get out of control and “become dangerous”.
But Gao thinks the latest surge in nationalism reflects the “true beliefs of many people” in China.
“Official propaganda instilled hatred of Japan for its crimes in World War II, and the image of Japan as an enemy became firmly entrenched in most people’s minds, despite the large amount of aid and investment that Japan has provided to China since the beginning of [China’s] reform period,” he said.
Despite Xi’s statement, in the days following Abe’s death, the Global Times, a nationalist tabloid, used the assassination to highlight flaws in Japan’s economic and political systems.
“Although Abe was Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, there are mixed opinions of him in Japan, and anti-Abe public opinion has always existed, including dissatisfaction with the growing gender gap. rich and poor caused by Abenomics, and the loathing for its forced adjustment of military and security policies,” the newspaper said, quoting Xiang Haoyu, a researcher at the China Institute of International Studies.
The contradictions between some of the macabre rhetoric online, Xi’s condolence message and state media have revealed the delicate balance Beijing has had to strike amid growing pressure from the US, Japan and other allies against China.
“Beijing has an interest in not letting nationalist sentiment spiral out of control in a way that undermines its foreign policy, particularly its interest in easing tensions with Japan,” said Brookings foreign policy and technology expert Jessica Brandt. Institution. , an American think tank.
“What is interesting in this case is that at least one senior official, [former Global Times editor] Hu Xijin, came out right away to try to quell some of the fervor, and the Foreign Ministry and state media coverage really played it straight.
She also pointed out that while there is “clearly” an outpouring of nationalist sentiment, it remains difficult to get a representative picture of the Chinese public’s mood just by looking at online comments.
The legacy of conflict and atrocities has continued to drive deep cultural and political rifts between East Asian neighbors. For years, tensions have not only simmered between Japan and China, but also between Japan and South Korea and Taiwan and China, at times boiling over into political controversies and sparking consumer protests and boycotts.
China’s latest nationalist push is unlikely to cause irreparable damage to relations between Tokyo and Beijing, experts have said.
But some are wary of the role such episodes could play in future clashes, especially given Beijing’s growing military assertiveness in the region and uncertainty over whether Kishida will press ahead with revising the country’s pacifist constitution. Japan, an ambition long maintained by Abe.
“If Japan changes its peace constitution and starts encouraging militarism, then things could change,” Gao said.
Additional reporting by Arjun Neil Alim in Beijing