Old scores in China-Japan match

Soccer: Tonight's championship game spotlights the historic ill will between the Asian giants.

August 07, 2004|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - As co-founder of a nationalistic Web site, Lu Yunfei is a driving force behind some of China's most virulent anti-Japan campaigns. But even Lu is worried things could go too far at tonight's soccer match here between Japan and China, a contest for the championship of the Asia Cup tournament - one of the major sporting events of the year.

Lu and his colleagues decided yesterday against an orchestrated show of anti-Japanese sentiment at tonight's game, since the patriotic feelings of Chinese fans are already running high.

"We are worried that if we really organize some special activity, they will get out of control," Lu said. "The emotions of soccer fans have almost reached the edge."

The soccer final marks the climax of an unruly tournament that has exposed millions of Japanese to the resurgence of anti-Japanese nationalism in China, stoked by young Internet activists and state media that find selling patriotism both profitable and politically safe.

At the Japanese team's tournament games, Chinese fans have refused to stand for the Japanese national anthem, booed and jeered the players, yelled anti-Japanese slogans and displayed banners calling on Japan to apologize for atrocities committed during World War II.

The final is an unexpected matchup: China's national soccer team, which was thought to be too weak, defeated Iran on Tuesday, compounding tensions felt far beyond the soccer stadium.

Japanese officials and international soccer officials have complained about the fans' behavior, going so far as to ask whether Beijing is fit to be host of the 2008 Summer Olympics. China's foreign minister called on fans this week to be civil, and in Tokyo, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi raised the issue with the Chinese ambassador.

Potential for trouble

With an expected crowd of more than 60,000 fans at Beijing's Workers' Stadium, the potential for problems is high, especially as Japan is favored to win. Experts worry that fans could inflame public opinion in both countries and further strain relations between the two Asian powers.

"A very few people can play a very great role to increase the dynamics toward tension, crisis and even conflict," said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing and one of the few Chinese academics to speak critically of the rise in anti-Japanese sentiment. "I hope that the government can behave more positively, more actively, use more energy to educate and guide Chinese public opinion."

Anti-Japanese sentiments are deeply rooted, tied especially to Japan's occupation of parts of China in the 1930s and '40s. Japanese planes bombed Chinese civilians, and Japanese troops were notoriously brutal during the occupation.

Japan has acknowledged its actions with statements of remorse, but many Chinese believe it has not meaningfully apologized. The Japanese, in turn, often express frustration with what they say is China's unwillingness to move forward.

Domestic politics

This dynamic has been worsened by domestic politics in both countries. In Japan, conservatives have pushed for their country to shed its pacifism, strengthen its military and play a more muscular role in international affairs. Koizumi, playing to his country's right wing, began in 2001 making annual visits to a shrine to Japanese war dead, a memorial that many in China consider an offensive commemoration of past imperial aggression.

In China, anti-Japanese feelings ebb and flow, and are sometimes manipulated by the government and seem to be cresting. The press is generally free to promote nationalism, and has done so. Also, the explosion of Internet use has provided a platform for young people, and the government doesn't object to or restrain their anti-Japanese complaints.

The generation that emerged from Chinese schools in the 1990s might have been primed for nationalism. After the violent 1989 crackdown on democracy protests at Tiananmen Square, the government intensified patriotic education in schools.

"The education greatly helped the government to stabilize the situation, but the patriotic education under this kind of condition nurtured some young people's irrational, blind anti-foreign minds," said Liu Xiaobiao, a newspaper editor and visiting scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, in an e-mail interview. "Some of the extreme nationalistic behavior we see right now is the outcome of that education."

Lu Yunfei has been at the vanguard of this resurgence, spending much of his free time - six to seven hours a day - helping run the Web-based Patriots' Alliance Network. The site serves as a platform for nationalist reactions to the latest events, including real or perceived slights by Japan. On an average day, more than 100,000 users visit the site, Lu said.

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