Dispute over islands with Japan rallies Taiwan, Hong Kong to mother China A patriotic nerve was hit when Japanese rightists built a lighthouse on islet

September 19, 1996|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

HONG KONG -- The sight caused Lau Sek-yim to stop short: There, amid the red lights of Hong Kong's notorious Wanchai district, people were soliciting patriotism instead of prostitution.

Just as unexpected was the enthusiastic response. Dozens lined up to sign a petition calling on Japan to relinquish control of a few uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.

Lau, a 37-year-old laborer, quickly joined the crowd and signed. "These islands had been China's for hundreds of years before the Japanese took them away," Lau said. "It is our sacred duty to recover them."

Like few issues in recent decades, possession of the small island chain -- Diaoyu in Chinese, Senkaku in Japanese -- has created an unusual coalition of Chinese in the British colony of Hong Kong, Communist-run China and the island republic of Taiwan.

In all three areas, ordinary people, painfully aware of how China lost the islands to Japan in a humiliating war 100 years ago, are putting pressure on their governments to take action. The furor was aroused when Japan allowed a right-wing group, the Japan Youth Federation, to build a lighthouse and erect a huge Japanese flag on one of the rocky, uninhabited islands.

The uproar intensified this week when members of the youth league returned to the island Monday to repair the lighthouse after it was damaged in a typhoon.

The two countries could have more than nationalistic claims at stake. Some people believe oil lies in the territorial waters surrounding the islands.

For the grass-roots activists, however, it is national pride, not natural resources, that lies at the heart of the matter.

Thousands of Chinese, for example, took to the streets yesterday to mark the 65th anniversary of Japan's first incursions into northeastern China in the years leading to World War II. Chinese in Hong Kong and Taiwan burned Japanese flags and launched boycotts of Japanese products, while the threat of protests in Beijing led the Chinese government to deploy a huge paramilitary force in front of the Japanese Embassy.

The events are to culminate Sunday in a trip to the islands by Chinese activists who will try to dismantle the lighthouse.

These actions have put conflicting pressures on leaders in Taiwan and China. They do not want to look weak if they cannot recover the islands. But at the same time they are also worried about alienating Japan, with its modern military and importance to the region's economies.

While Japan has refused to comment on China's claims over the islands, its refusal to criticize the Youth Federation for constructing the lighthouse is seen as evidence that Tokyo intends to maintain control of the islands, first lost to Japan in the a war fought from 1894 to 1895, along with Taiwan and southern Manchuria.

After World War II, China recovered most of the territories but the United States occupied the Senkaku Islands and, in 1972, returned them to Japan. That decision touched off a wave of protests in Taiwan and Hong Kong. China, then strictly in the grasp of totalitarianism, did not allow protest.

The 1972 protests were a watershed for many democracy activists in Taiwan and Hong Kong, where the governments tended to suppress any form of popular demonstration. Minky Worden, an official with Hong Kong's Democracy Party, said this explains why democracy organizations in Hong Kong and Taiwan have so strongly backed the recent round of protests.

"This [the 1972 protests] was the first chance that many activists had to organize autonomous activities and even to protest," Worden said. "Many people who went out on the streets for the first time then went out later for democracy."

Such fears partially explain Beijing's reluctance to embrace the protest movement. Tong Zeng, a veteran campaigner for war victims' compensation, was hustled out of Beijing last weekend. Authorities have also banned protests by university students.

"This is something that every Chinese supports," said a student at Beijing University. "The government may not want us to protest, but we will continue to protest. We are just being patriotic."

China has, however, tried to bring the groundswell under control by toning down its rhetoric in recent days.

Last week it issued shrill commentaries calling for the islands' return and even lodged a formal diplomatic protest. This week, however, it has played down the issue in the government-controlled press and further tightened the screws on activists, who had planned a demonstration in front of the Japanese Embassy this week.

Beijing's positions on the issue in Hong Kong have run hot and cold. One Hong Kong group agitating for Chinese ownership of the islands was given an audience with China's representative to Hong Kong. Last week the Hong Kong activists were turned away at the door.

While China is wary of anti-Japanese protests getting out of hand, it has continued to criticize Japan in the press. Yesterday, for example, the People's Daily drew a parallel between Japan's militarism in World War II and its refusal to return the islands.

"There are still a minority of Japanese who rigidly grasp the corpse of militarism and will not let go, who return evil for good and constantly create disturbances," the People's Daily said in an commentary marking the Japanese incursions of 65 years ago.

While the anti-Japanese protests may blow over, they have tapped a strain of growing nationalism in China, said a Western diplomat in Beijing -- the sort of sentiments that could strain relations between Asia's two main powers well into the future.

"The Chinese have long memories," the diplomat said. "They lost these territories when the world was trying to carve up China and now they want the territories back."

Pub Date: 9/19/96

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