Japan-China relations, despite massive Japanese investment in the country, are deteriorating at a disconcerting pace. April's demonstrations in Beijing, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and elsewhere over Japan's continued refusal to fully acknowledge and apologize for its wartime deeds more than 60 years ago, were angry hisses from a volcano that simmers below the surface.
The violence and bad vibes are already making Japanese companies cautious about becoming sponsors of the Beijing Games in 2008. Will their logos be shredded by mobs creating footage for TV networks to beam around the world? Will their China subsidiaries be attacked as a Japanese supermarket was last month?
This issue that will not go away fires passions as Chinese and Japanese address other issues, such as Japan's bid for a United Nations Security Council seat, or which country holds claim over disputed islands in the East China Sea, or which is entitled to energy reserves in the ocean floor.
Last year it came to light that Japan had identified China as a potential enemy for strategic planning purposes. Recently, Japan again urged the European Union to maintain its arms embargo against China, then on the verge of being lifted. Then, on the heels of the anti-Japan demonstrations, Tokyo began issuing licenses to Japanese oil companies to commence exploration in areas of the East China Sea that China also claims as hers.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II and in Europe, Germany's chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, has been marking the event by going around to commemorations held at old Nazi death camps and other sites, apologizing for the unspeakable horror Germans visited on Jews, many of them fellow Germans.
Speaking on behalf of Germany's federal government and on behalf of all Germans, Schroeder insists the Holocaust must never, ever be forgotten. There is nothing equivocal in his words, no dodge about how his apology is personal and not expressed on behalf of the German government.
A perfect model
Because of that, Schroeder presents a model worth imitating by the Japanese, who did a pretty good job mimicking the Nazis in this part of the world, especially in China.
But instead of an apology from the bottom of Japan's communal soul, Japanese leaders still indulge in old routines like visiting the Yakusuni shrine to pay homage to Japanese war dead, some of them war criminals. The parallel would be Schroeder offering a personal apology for past injustices, and then going to a Nazi shrine to offer up a prayer.
Japan adds to these repeated insults by misrepresenting the facts of its wartime record to its own school children. It is galling that the ministry of education should use this anniversary year to release a newly revised high school history textbook that again glosses over reality.
The Nanjing massacre, which brought death to as many as 300,000, is reduced to a minor event; the shame of their "comfort women" program in which Chinese, Korean and other women across Southeast Asia were forced to serve in sex camps for Japanese troops never really happened. Rather than fix things, Japan's education authority adds more lacquer, making the truth only more impenetrable.
It is crucial that this be put right before the generation responsible passes completely from the scene. Otherwise, the reality is reduced to speculation and theory, and not hard truth that can stand as a perpetual caution for future generations. Japan right now is living a lie. This is unhealthy for everyone, not least the Japanese people.
The healthier alternative is to face up to the truth and set the record straight, so that this poison can be excised once and for all and life can move on. It has to be said that China's textbooks have their glossy chapters, too, failing to deal adequately with episodes like the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and June 4. In fact, many countries could do their children a favor by addressing hard truths more directly. Japan has the perfect opportunity to use this anniversary year to get the ball rolling.
China, for its part, must ensure that demonstrations against Japanese or anyone else for that matter, do not again degenerate into the shameful thuggery that landed two Japanese students in a Shanghai hospital last month. If it fails to, its cause will only be undermined.
Japanese and Chinese youth, in fact, already demonstrate a zest for getting on with one another. It is evident in the way Chinese youth embrace Japanese film, music, funky graphic arts and clothing, even some of their more dreadful hairstyles.
Let us hope for the day when China can pare its Japan complaints list down to what Japanese youth have done to Chinese hair. There are many parents on both sides who would find common ground on that point.
Prospects for sunshine
With the passing of Beijing's anti-secession law, the leadership's sunshine policy towards Taiwan, so vividly demonstrated in the Lunar New Year program of direct flights between Taiwan and mainland cities, appears to be in retreat and the skies have resumed their familiar steel-gray.
The anti-secession law established a "legal" framework for using force in the event Taiwan declared independence. Aimed at containing any attempt by Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian to move towards independence, the National People's Congress passed the Bill into law after passions had already been dampened down by Taiwan's own democratic process. Chen may have won December's elections by a hair, but the ranks of legislators needed to pass enabling legislation for an independence referendum were further reduced. In short, the danger had already passed. Taiwan is home to people with pride and emotions like anyone else. So when Chen called for a demonstration to show Beijing what islanders thought of its anti-secession law, they came out in the hundreds of thousands. Chen, unfortunately, took things a step further and threatened economic sanctions against the Mainland. His Economics Ministry went after Richard Chang (Zhang Rujing), the Taiwan founder and CEO of the Mainland's biggest chip foundry, Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp, fining him US$158,000 and ordering him to retract his Mainland investment with six months. It also kyboshed chip foundry UMC's plans to expand activities there.
Given how crucial the Mainland market is to Taiwan's semiconductor industry, the actions seemed out of step with reality.
In the meantime, events were unfolding at Kuomintang (KMT) headquarters, busy organizing the first official visit to the Mainland by a party delegation in 50 years: Taipei's popular and charismatic mayor, Ma Ying-jeou, declared his bid for the leadership of the party.
It was an event that proved the value of smiles: while Ma, who looks like a shoo-in in the next presidential poll, committed to end talk of independence, he vowed to look, in effect, for ways to maintain the Mainland-Taiwan status quo for 50 years. "As long as Taiwan does not push for independence," Ma said, "we can push to sign a midterm agreement for 50 years of peace and economic cooperation."
If cooperation ran to fully integrating their semiconductor industries, the combination would create a world powerhouse in short order. Even though this is not the sort of timeframe Beijing would normally abide, the official China Daily cheerfully reported how "the handsome, articulate and savvy Ma ? pledged to seek reunification with China."
While cross-strait relations will continue to have their ambiguities, people on both sides can show a surprising unanimity of spirit. On that, Acer Group Founder Stan Shih, the man who put Taiwan's computer industry on the world map (Q&A, page 12), makes a point worth bearing in mind. Asked about his new post-retirement role as industry consultant, and the risks of sharing his industry secrets with mainland companies, Shih paused for a moment. "They are competitors," he said at last. "But we are all Chinese – we want them to succeed, too."