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China: Beijing has to demobilise chauvinist campaign

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Anti-Japanese demonstrations shook more than 100 cities across China in the last week. The demonstrations marked the anniversary of the 1931 “Mukden Incident" when the Japanese army used the pretext of the destruction of a bridge, which it had itself blown up, as a justification for its invasion of Manchuria. However, the protests also coincided with increased tension between Tokyo and Beijing over the sovereignty of the chain of barren islands known as the Diaoyu in Chinese and Senkaku in Japanese.

Such widespread demonstrations were undoubtedly given official approval but in many cities they resulted in violent clashes between protesters and police, break-ins and looting from Japanese stores and the torching of Japanese cars. It was reported that as well as placards carrying slogans denouncing Japanese aggression and asserting Chinese sovereignty over the islands, there were also demands that Beijing should take a tougher line and others denouncing official corruption. After a couple of days, Beijing was obliged to call for the protests to be toned down.

Both the scale of the violence and the raising of such demands suggest that many protesters took advantage of the officially inspired protest meetings to vent their own anger at the increasing gulf between rich and poor in China as well as the ostentatious wealth of many party officials.

In the long term, it may be even more significant that in some cities protesters carried portraits not only of Mao Zedong but also of Bo Xilai, the recently disgraced party leader who made much of his Maoist credentials. Portraits of Mao could be explained as reminders of his role in the anti-Japanese war but many commentators believe that they relate to factional manoeuvring within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Certainly, placards supporting Bo cannot have any other meaning.

In the obscure world of Chinese politics, loyalty to Mao is interpreted as hostility to the policies initiated by his longtime factional rival, Deng Xiaoping, who initiated the “reform programme" that eventually led to the restoration of capitalism in China. More precisely, it is used to denote opposition to continued “market" reforms, which increase the power of corporate and private capital as against the centrality and privileges of the state and party bureaucracy. References to the anti-Japanese war, 1931 – 45, obviously imply that the current party leaders have not “stood up for China” against Japan in the way that Mao is said to have done in the official histories.

This factional battle within the CCP has become more heated because the 18th congress of the party is due to take place in a matter of weeks. Failure even to announce a date for it is also seen as related to the inner party struggle. Party congresses generally just rubber-stamp decisions already taken by the party leaders but this one is due to see the installation of a new party leadership to replace Wen Jiabao and Hu Jintao. Against a background of a significant decline in growth rates, a potentially dangerous speculative bubble in the real estate market and the prospect of a further reduction in exports as a result of the European crisis, inner party conflicts appear to have led to a degree of political paralysis.

That, indeed, is also a factor in the decision to raise the issue of Chinese sovereignty not only with Japan but also with the states bordering the South China Sea, all of whom claim ownership of what the British call the Spratly Islands. All such stoking up of patriotic fervour and anti-foreign sentiment serves the purpose of distraction from the real issues facing hundreds of millions of Chinese workers and farmers.

Beijing claims that it is acting in response to Tokyo's decision to purchase the islands from their current, private owner, thereby “nationalising” them. However, it is widely known that this itself was a product of political conflict in Japan. The right wing populist Mayor of Tokyo had begun a chauvinist campaign to raise money to buy the islands by public subscription in a bid to present the government as unwilling to defend the “national interest”. As in China, spurious claims that the country's rights are being threatened or its territorial integrity undermined, are a means of manipulating public opinion at a time of economic uncertainty.

In neither country is the issue of these islands anything more than a distraction and a crude attempt to stoke up chauvinism. In the wider world, however, such disputes are also a symptom of the developing rivalry between China and the other, longer-established, imperialist powers. Revolutionaries in both Japan and China must take the lead in denouncing not only the present contrived display of “patriotic fervour” but also explaining its more fundamental meaning. As inter-imperialist rivalry mounts, it will become ever more important that the working classes of both countries see through their rulers' ploys and take an independent political position against all chauvinism and for working class unity. Workers of all countries, unite!