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China Sizes Up the New Administration

Tags: China , DPJ , Eurasia , Hatoyama , Trade

Sekiyama, Takashi ( –2017.3)

March 04, 2010

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How have the Chinese greeted Japan's new DPJ government? With open arms, if we can take the official rhetoric at face value. But closer examination reveals a telling gap between Bejing's rosy assessment and the attitudes of ordinary citizens.

A month has passed since a landslide election victory by the Democratic Party of Japan set the stage for the birth of a new government under Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. In neighboring China, this historic change of government has attracted considerable interest, and there has been no lack of speculation on what it bodes for the future.

Generally speaking, the prevailing view is that the DPJ is well-disposed toward China, and there is little sign of concern for the future. Certainly the friction over conflicting interpretations of history that has so frequently marred Japan's relations with China and South Korea under the LDP seems less likely now, since the DPJ has far fewer politicians committed to the conservative-nationalistic views that tend to trigger such flare-ups. As early as August 11, Hatoyama told reporters at a press conference that he would not visit Yasukuni Shrine if he became prime minister, and that he would ask the rest of the cabinet to refrain from doing so as well. The election manifesto of the DPJ pledges to "make the greatest possible effort to build relations of mutual trust with China, South Korea, and other Asian countries." These factors give the Chinese reason to anticipate fundamentally smooth relations with Japan under a DPJ administration.

Still, if we dig a bit deeper and listen to the discrete voices of China's government leaders, academic experts, and ordinary citizens, we find a greater diversity of opinion. In the following, I will attempt to summarize the characteristic views coming out of each of these sectors.

 

Government Leaders: Gung-ho on the "Mutually Beneficial Relationship"

From the nation's political leadership in Beijing, the consistent message is a determination to advance the stable development of Japan-China relations.

On September 9, Premier Wen Jiabao met with representatives of the Japan-China Economic Association (Fujio Mitarai, president), the first major delegation from Japan to visit China in the wake of the August 30 general election. At the meeting Wen stated that "China appreciates the active attitude of the DPJ leader toward the relationship with China and is ready to strengthen communication and cooperation with Japan's new Cabinet" 1 and added that "China expects to work together with Japan to enhance mutual trust, carry forward traditional ties, and boost strategic and mutually beneficial relations between the two countries." 2

These sentiments were echoed by Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu at a regular press conference on September 15, the day before Hatoyama took office. "We look forward to strengthening exchanges, communication, and cooperation with the new Japanese Cabinet," she said, "so as to build up mutual trust and bring what we have achieved into the future with a view to jointly achieving further progress in bilateral relations." 3

The same tone prevailed when Prime Minister Hatoyama and Chinese President Hu Jintao met on September 21 in New York City, where both had traveled for a session of the United Nations General Assembly. Hatoyama pledged to continue the policy of pursuing "strategic and mutually beneficial relations," while Hu, stressing the global importance of the Japan-China bilateral relationship, proposed five key points for achieving closer ties: (1) enhancing high-level communication, (2) promoting trade and economic cooperation, (3) improving the attitudes of the Japanese and the Chinese people toward one another, (4) enhancing cooperation on Asian and international affairs, and (5) appropriately addressing differences of opinion. 4

Within the Chinese government, there is a tendency to view relations with Japan as a domestic rather than a foreign affair. Difficulties in the bilateral relationship can provide opposition forces and radicals elements in China with fodder for their criticism of the government. Amidst mounting threats to domestic stability, from high unemployment among migrant workers to ethnic unrest among the Uyghurs of Xinjiang, one senses that China's leaders are anxious to build a stable relationship with the DPJ government to head off any further controversy in that department.

 

The Pundits: Cautiously Optimistic

How, then, do China's Japan pundits view the new DPJ government?

Yang Bojiang, director of the Institute of Japanese Studies of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, expresses a view consistent with that of officialdom, namely, that the DPJ administration will approach Japan-China relations more positively, and that bilateral ties will improve. "While the DPJ was in the opposition," he remarks, "it worked in numerous ways to advanced China-Japan relations. It played a particularly important role during the period from 2001 to 2005, when Japanese leaders' visits to Yasukuni Shrine had led to a chill in bilateral relations. In the past few years as well, the party's leadership has demonstrated a positive attitude toward building ties with China. On the basis of these observations, I believe that China-Japan ties will develop further going forward." 5

The possible impact of the new government on economic ties between the two countries has also been a topic of public discourse, and in virtually every case, the pundits have espoused the basic view that the change of government will have little impact on the bilateral economic relationship. Underlying this view is the perception that regardless of which party is in control, and regardless of who is prime minister, the Japanese government can scarcely ignore the importance of that relationship now that China has replaced the United States as Japan's biggest trade partner and export market.

That said, not all of China's pundits are quite as optimistic about the future of bilateral ties. For example, Zhao Gang of the Institute of Japanese Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences notes that Japan and China are at odds over a number of sensitive issues, including territorial disputes over the East China Sea and the Senkaku [Diaoyutai] Islands, as well as the Yasukuni problem, and he cautions that the DPJ is unlikely to prove more flexible than the LDP on the territorial disputes and certain other sensitive issues. 6

With regard to the DPJ's domestic economic policies, China's pundits have offered a cool-headed assessment. The September 2 Jingji cankao bao (Economic Information Daily) had this to say:

Hatoyama's party the DPJ, has called for more distribution of wealth and stronger social security policies, stimulus measures to spur domestic consumption, and a shift from an export-led economy to one driven by domestic demand. However, it has yet to formulate concrete measures capable of delivering the Japanese economy from its long-term stagnation. It seems fair to conclude that Japan's economic structure and model will not change dramatically in the foreseeable future.

Also of interest is the response to Hatoyama's concept of yuai, which has been analyzed by virtually every Japan expert of note. In the October 9 Jiefang ribao (Jiefang Daily), Lian Degui, deputy director of Japanese studies at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, explains that Hatoyama's yuai can be traced to Austrian political scientist Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi's concept of fraternity and asserts that Hatoyama, "operating on the principle of yuai, places a high value on relations with China, Japan's largest neighbor." However, with regard to the precise definition and concrete implications of yuai, there appear to be "a hundred schools of thought," suggesting that the term has caused some confusion among China's Japan experts.

 

The Chinese People: Casting A Jaundiced Eye

The mass media in China took a keen interest in the August general election and the prospect of a change in government. On August 30, China Central Television took the unheard-of step of scheduling a special program reporting the results of the Japanese election in detail.

Coverage in the days leading up to the inauguration of the new cabinet had its own special flavor.  Chinese media enthusiastically picked up on speculation in Japan that Hatoyama might give a cabinet position to House of Councillors Member Renho Murata, the only Diet member of Chinese descent. Born to a Taiwanese father and a Japanese mother, Renho, as she is known, is also a former short-term student at Peking University. The People's Daily online covered her possible appointment, proclaiming that "the Japanese media consider ethnic Chinese Upper House Member Renho as a top candidate for the post of state minister for the declining birthrate" (i.e., for consumer affairs and food safety, social affairs, and gender equality) and that some commentators were even floating her name as a possible choice for chief cabinet secretary. 7 In Hong Kong the daily newspaper Ta Kung Pao commented that the Chinese people's interest in the new DPJ government extended even to the information that Hatoyama's wife was born in Shanghai. All of this peripheral coverage can be considered evidence of a particularly high level of interest in the new government.

That said, the assessment of ordinary citizens seems to be markedly less optimistic than that of the nation's political leaders and pundits. The results of an online survey by Huanqiu.com, the Huanqiu shibao (Global Times) website, suggested that more than 75% of Internet users doubted relations between China and Japan would improve substantially under the DPJ. Moreover, the results of another Huanqiu.com online survey pointed to rising doubts over the future of Tokyo's policy of economic cooperation with China. In response to the question "Will Japan's policy of cooperation with China continue over the long term?" only 18.2% answered yes, while a full 44.7% said no.

One reason for doubts concerning the long-term stability of economic cooperation from Japan is summed up in this post on Huanqiu.com's discussion board: "Japan is constantly changing prime ministers. About once a year. This works against the stability of Japan's policies" (October 10, 2009).

In truth, this writer has heard similar observations in Washington regarding the instability of Japan's political leadership. In the face of such comments, one can only hope that the current DPJ government proves more stable. Clearly such longevity is important to the conduct of diplomacy, and surely it is also a necessary condition for the successful implementation of domestic policies to improve the lives of the Japanese people. (Translated from a report in Japanese published on October 19, 2009)


1

. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China, Activities, September 9, 2009, "Wen Jiabao Meets with Delegation of Japan-China Economic Association," http://www.chineseembassy.org/eng/wjdt/wshd/t583499.htm.

2

. China.org.cn, "China ready to work closely with Japan's new Cabinet," September 9, 2009, http://www.china.org.cn/international/2009-09/09/content_18493347.htm.

3

. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China, Regular press conference, September 16, 2009, http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/xwfw/s2510/2511/t584510.htm.

4

. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China, Topics, "Chinese President Hu Jintao Meets with Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama," September 22, 2009, http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/topics/hujintaoG20fenghui/t605899.htm.

5

. China Radio International online, Japanese edition, August 31, 2009, http://japanese.cri.cn/881/2009/08/31/1s146159.htm.

6

. People's Daily Online, Japanese edition, September 4, 2009, http://j.people.com.cn/94474/6748595.html.

7

. People's Daily Online, Japanese edition, September 3, 2009, http://j.people.com.cn/94474/6747551.html.

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