Beijing's drive to instill nationalism fires up the young

A protest in Wuhan, central China's Hubei province, in September 2012 against Japan's nationalising of parts of the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands the month before. Anti-Japanese sentiment appears to be a key element of China's propaganda campaign to nurture nationalism.

Ties between China and Japan are at a new low. The Straits Times' China Bureau examines the attitudes towards Japan among young Chinese, as well as how mainland-based Japanese nationals cope amid the public acrimony between the two Asian powers.

With her gentle demeanour and sweet smile, Chinese beautician Li Ping hardly looks the type to pick a fight. But mention an anti- Japanese demonstration and she gets all fired up.

"Of course I would participate in a protest. When a lot of people gather with one voice, Japan will know that the Chinese people cannot be bullied," declares the 25-year-old, who lives in Beijing and boycotts anything Japanese, including cosmetics. "Our government should issue a lot of propaganda to unite the people to stand up to Japan."

While she has never participated in a demonstration, she credits Beijing's messages for influencing her parents and herself to "hate Japanese devils".

Ms Li was born long after the Japanese occupied parts of China between 1939 and 1945. But Japan's war atrocities have been vividly etched into the psyche of people her age through detailed school textbook accounts, anti-Japanese drama serials and strident state media reports.

The number of anti-Japanese television dramas were reported to have multiplied from 15 in 2004 to more than 175 in 2011. The number of Japanese slain on TV over a year was one billion, local media estimated.

Younger people are a prime target of Beijing's ongoing propaganda campaign to nurture nationalism as China rises to become a more assertive Asian power. And a key element of this drive appears to be anti-Japanese sentiment, fuelled by the escalating conflict between Tokyo and Beijing after Japan nationalised parts of the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in August 2012.

Beijing high school teacher Lucy Zhang, 28, says: "We are reminded to teach the students about loving our country, and that China's economy and military are getting stronger so it is better able to stand up to those who challenge our interests, such as Japan."

Professor Liu Jiangyong of Tsinghua University believes that today's young people need to be educated more than ever to be wary of "the dark motives and thinking of right- wing politicians" in Tokyo who deny Japan's war atrocities and want to stir up new conflicts.

The efforts appear to be working. Just look at the August 2012 images of hot-blooded Chinese men breaking windows of Japanese restaurants and smashing Japan-made cars in southern Shenzhen, and reports of college student protesters in south-western Chengdu wielding banners calling for Japan to be "wiped off the face of the earth".

Yet, it is hardly the case that Chinese youth dislike the Japanese more than their elders. Elite young Chinese maintain much more favourable views of Japan, an annual poll of Chinese attitudes towards Japan released last August showed.

The poll, conducted by the China Daily newspaper and Japanese think-tank Genron NPO, covered 1,540 people from the Chinese public. It also surveyed 200 intellectuals and 802 students and teachers from top schools including the prestigious Peking University.

While the proportion of Chinese across the board who held positive views of Japan plummeted to 4 per cent last year from 31.8 per cent in 2012, the figure for elite young Chinese has remained stable at more than 50 per cent since 2010. The young elite are also able to think more rationally, say analysts like Professor Zhou Weihong of Beijing Foreign Studies University.

Fudan University's Professor Doug Young points out that while young Chinese still pay attention to state media accounts of issues such as the Diaoyu disputes, they are more sceptical of what they read than the older generation.

"Young Chinese are much more proud these days to be Chinese, compared to people 20 or 30 years ago," he says. "They feel China, after having undergone a 'century of humiliation', should not be bullied any more."

Indeed, young white-collar professionals like Ms Chun Hui, 28, see themselves as being more nationalistic than their parents. The translator says she wants China to be "stronger than all other countries" so that its interests are not damaged.

But she would not participate in an anti-Japanese demonstration. "Protests just add to trouble," says Ms Chun, who lives in Beijing.

Media relations manager Chen Mei, 27, echoed her view, saying it is irrational to boycott Japanese goods or go online to spew abuse at Japan.

Mechanic Li Feng, 42, who lives in north-eastern Changchun city, thinks it is time China ended the propaganda. "It is not necessary for the government to brainwash its young people," says the father of a 17-year-old son.

Referring to the Diaoyu dispute, he adds: "The facts are all there. People have eyes and can judge for themselves."

What this means is that President Xi Jinping will need a more sophisticated approach to influencing young people about Japan, analysts think.

One example of how the authorities have sought to moderate over- the-top propaganda was a government crackdown on anti-Japanese dramas last May, after viewers complained about ridiculous storylines and graphic depictions of Communist Party heroes chopping Japanese soldiers in half with their bare hands.

Also, China is up against the rising appeal of Japanese pop culture among young people drawn to manga comics, food and even porn stars like Sora Aoi - who has over 13 million fans on the popular microblog platform.

Beijing vocational school student Zhang Weixiong, 19, an anime fan, says: "I have complex feelings about Japan - it's love and hate mixed together."

Additional reporting by Lina Miao

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Disputed islands between China and Japan