By The Yomiuri Shimbun
Asia News Network
The relationship between the two nations — inseparable from a history of reform and opening up — is entering a new era after repeated cooperation and confrontation. This is the first installment of a series looking into challenges and possibilities of the bilateral ties.
Xi's early stance
A total operational distance of approximately 25,000 kilometers, over 60 percent of the high-speed railways in the entire world — in the early 1990s, before this figure made China the high-speed railway giant it is now, a plan nearly came to fruition to build a Japanese Shinkansen line in Fujian Province between Fuzhou, the provincial capital, and major port city Xiamen.
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According to an official on the Japanese side at that time, the plan was for Japan to contribute 90 percent of the construction costs, which totaled approximately ¥400 billion. The Chinese government, however, threw a wrench in the plan by saying that if a high-speed railway were to be built, it should first connect Beijing and Shanghai. The plan collapsed around 1996.
One person who was enthusiastic about that plan was the then leader of Fuzhou and current head of China, Xi Jinping.
In May 1992, Xi gave a fervent speech to the city's senior officials, saying, "If construction moves forward, I believe it will boost the economy of Fuzhou."
Two years later, Xi is also said to have promoted the plan directly to then head of state Jiang Zemin when he toured Fuzhou.
While patriotic education caused anti-Japanese sentiment to rise under the Jiang administration, Xi took the stance of prioritizing practical benefit and not hesitating to accept Japanese investment. Having now entered the second term of his administration, Xi has solidified the "unipolar system" of drawing authority to himself, focusing on the gains and, according to a source on Japan-China relations, "seriously" working to improve relations with Japan.
Cards close to chest
In the middle of this May, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang spoke with greater passion than usual when he chaired a meeting of the central government's State Council held in Beijing.
According to a Chinese government official with knowledge of the meeting, Li, who had just returned from a visit to Japan, offered the following impression when speaking in front of government ministers and agency heads about what he observed on his visits to an auto-related factory and a farming facility in Hokkaido: "It was a country more advanced than I imagined."
With the Japanese government's nationalization of the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture in September 2012, correspondence between the leaders of Japan and China had ceased, and relations between the countries worsened to the point of forming a "blank period," according to a person connected to the Japanese government. In China, with the confidence of having passed Japan in 2010 to become the world's No. 2 economy in terms of GDP, there were also assertions flying around of "ignoring" Japan, that "Japan was no longer relevant, and that China should deal directly with the United States," according to a Chinese diplomatic source.
However, when Li visited Japan for the first time in a quarter century — and the first time for any Chinese premier in seven years — he is said to have gotten the impression, according to an official related to the Chinese Communist Party, that "there is a great difference between what is seen and what is heard" regarding Japan's "national strength," which is difficult to express in economic indicators. A Japanese government official who joined the tour revealed that Li heaped praise on Japan's modernized agriculture and advanced technology, which surprised those around him.
At the Japan-China Governors' Forum held in Sapporo, Li touched on the grave issue of China's declining birthrate and aging population and called for stronger cooperation between Japan and China, saying, "In the field of medical instruments and areas that employ robots, Japan has advanced technology and experience."
There is no way that Li's series of comments about Japan did not have the approval of Xi, as he holds authority to decide foreign policy. It appears that the policy of "learning from Japan once again" is shared by the entire Chinese leadership.
The Xi administration, fretting over unpredictable trade friction with the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, is being pressured by the need to secure its footing against the United States, a position that includes improved relations with Japan. Xi's administration is aiming not only to use Japanese know-how for solving domestic issues such as environmental conservation and medical and nursing care, but also to keep an eye on Japanese actions toward involvement with China's One Belt and One Road Initiative (see below), a massive economic zone that would counter the United States.
However, the Communist administration is not wholly devoted to improving relations with Japan. This is because its history of "victory against Japanese aggression" is the backbone of legitimizing one-party rule. The Patriotic Education Bases built all over the country during the administration of Jiang number over 400.
At the end of May, a man who shared a video at a wedding ceremony parade in Tianjin of him riding a motorcycle while dressed in an old Japanese military uniform was forced to make a public apology online. Chinese people who glorify militarist-era Japan, such as by dressing up in such a manner, are referred to as "jing ri" — an abbreviation of the Chinese term "jingshen ribenren" (Japanese at heart). It has gained traction among a section of Chinese youth who were raised on Japanese manga and anime, and was not seen as much of a problem until now.
Since last year, however, the authorities have repeatedly exposed "jing ri" in Nanjing and Shanghai, and in March this year, State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi criticized them by deriding them as "a waste of Chinese." The Heroes and Martyrs Protection Law enacted in May can go as far as to charge "jing ri" acts with criminal liability.
Last autumn, group travel to Japan, which had been on an upward trajectory, was suddenly restricted on a national scale across China. Many believe that this was a measure to warn Chinese people that public opinion had grown too "pro-Japanese." A Japanese airline company executive who has lived for many years in China said, "Although you could say there is a trend toward improved relations, this shows that Japan and China's relationship is a peculiar one."
A source on Japan-China relations said: "Even while relations are friendly, we cannot forget restraint. That is China's consistent policy toward Japan."
The switch to play the "anti-Japan" card — used to distract Chinese from problems both domestic and foreign — always remains in the hands of the Communist Party administration.
■ One Belt and One Road Initiative
Proposed by President Xi Jinping in 2013. Through supporting the building of infrastructure, it aims to bolster influence in surrounding countries. The initiative was first conceived to primarily affect those countries bordering the initiative's overland route from China to Europe and its sea route connecting the South China Sea with the Indian Ocean. Now, however, it has expanded to include the entire world.Speech