Clickbait Nationalism

Chinese State Media’s Sensational Headlines, Misleading Translations Incite Anger at Japan

On July 16, the lower house of the Japanese Parliament passed a set of new security legislation that would grant Japan limited power to engage in foreign conflicts for the first time since its defeat in World War II. Despite domestic public opposition and doubts from Japanese legal scholars as to whether the legislation is in line with article 9 of Japan’s constitution, in which the country “forever renounce[s] war as a sovereign right,” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was able to get enough votes.

In China, Japan’s huge neighbor and regional competitor, the new legislation met with a wave of alarm. The memories of Japanese cruelty during World War II still hover over China’s collective consciousness, made fresher by constantly replenished propaganda both in schools and in Chinese media. Highly publicized quarrels with Japan over wartime atrocities, as well as contemporary territorial disputes in the East China Sea, have only added to Chinese distrust and even hatred of Japan. And Chinese state-run online media outlets—especially the fervently nationalist Global Times, which produces much of the virulent content circulated elsewhere online under separate cover—have seemed eager to fan the anti-Japanese flames. While the nationalist drumbeat in Chinese state media is nothing new, what is novel is the use of modern Internet media tactics that slice, dice, and repackage stories in the name of national pride, not to mention page views. At each step in this process, the truth recedes further from view.



Intimate Rivals

Sheila A. Smith
No country feels China’s rise more deeply than Japan. Through intricate case studies of visits by Japanese politicians to the Yasukuni Shrine, conflicts over the boundaries of economic zones in the East China Sea, concerns about food safety, and strategies of island defense, Sheila A. Smith explores the policy issues testing the Japanese government as it tries to navigate its relationship with an advancing China.Smith finds that Japan’s interactions with China extend far beyond the negotiations between diplomats and include a broad array of social actors intent on influencing the Sino-Japanese relationship. Some of the tensions complicating Japan’s encounters with China, such as those surrounding the Yasukuni Shrine or territorial disputes, have deep roots in the postwar era, and political advocates seeking a stronger Japanese state organize themselves around these causes. Other tensions manifest themselves during the institutional and regulatory reform of maritime boundary and food safety issues.Smith scrutinizes the role of the Japanese government in coping with contention as China’s influence grows and Japanese citizens demand more protection. Underlying the government’s efforts is Japan’s insecurity about its own capacity for change and its waning status as the leading economy in Asia. For many, China’s rise means Japan’s decline, and Smith suggests how Japan can maintain its regional and global clout as confidence in its postwar diplomatic and security approach diminishes.—Columbia University Press

One popular approach, recognizable to anyone who’s ever bemoaned the ubiquity of so-called click-bait, is the practice of juicing a headline. One particularly egregious instance involved a June 27 article in U.S. outlet National Interest, called “3 Ways China and Japan Could Go to War.” That article was unlikely to leave anyone feeling better about Sino-Japanese relations, but at least it ended with a paragraph that asserted the exercise in imagination allows analysts to “look at where vital interests intersect and work to avoid them.” That paragraph went missing in a Chinese language translation appearing shortly thereafter on Global Times, which used a new, zestier headline, which read in part: “China and Japan Might Be Forced Into War.” Many other outlets, including major news portal Sohu, reposted the article.

If the article’s Chinese incarnation was intended to rile up the ranks, it seems to have succeeded. Of more than 2,200 comments to the article on Sohu, the most popular evinced eagerness for real action: “A war of words with the Japanese devils will never help reclaim the Diaoyu Islands.” (China and Japan have fiercely contested control of the Diaoyu, which Japan calls the Senkaku, a group of small islands in the East China Sea.) Another popular comment read, “The battlefield should not be limited to the Diaoyu Islands. We should attack the Japanese homeland at the same time.” Only a few commenters seemed reluctant to take the article at face value. One user wrote that “whenever the economy has an unoptimistic accident”—a likely reference to the recent stock market crash in China—“I can always see news of the imminent war between China and Japan on the media.”

Another popular approach is showcasing Chinese weaponry in a way that implicitly or explicitly links it to Japan.

Another popular approach is showcasing Chinese weaponry in a way that implicitly or explicitly links it to Japan. Accuracy is not a threshold requirement. On July 4, Sohu’s military page featured an article with the title, “China Coast Guard’s Wenzhou Station Home to Ten Thousand Ton ‘Monster;’ Japan Shocked.” (It was first published June 15 on the Global Times.) That headline, too, is click-bait; the actual article notes that the ten-thousand-ton “monster,” which has yet to be deployed from a coast guard base in the coastal city of Wenzhou, is nothing more than a patrol ship. Another example: On July 15, portal Netease published an article with the headline, “Expert: Japanese F-15 Pilots Scared of China’s Su-27, Get Nervous as Soon as They Sight a Su-27.” The genesis of the headline is a comment that a Japanese commander allegedly made to a Chinese military expert, saying that whenever a Su-27 fighter jet takes off, “Japanese Air Self-Defense Force pilots are highly concentrated and vigilant at all times.” That, of course, is not the same as quaking in one’s boots. One reader commented on the article, “Only after reading this did I realize the magic of Chinese culture. Through distorting the words of others, we’ve vanquished the enemy.”

A more sophisticated strategy takes advantage of the readers’ source amnesia. On June 29, an article under the headline “Abe admits to war planning: Japan’s new security law targets South China Sea” appeared across the Chinese Internet, having again originated with the Global Times. The piece cites Japanese reports that during a meeting with representatives from domestic media, Abe “produced one shocking remark after another after finishing his share of red wine.” Among these remarks, the piece said, was an admission that with the help of U.S. forces, Japan “intends to beat China in the South China Sea.” The article included a selection of similarly sensational quotes of Abe disparaging South Korea, not to mention U.S. President Obama. Among the more than 9,700 comments on a version syndicated on Sohu, this one garnered 14,000 likes: “War between China and Japan is unavoidable. Are we ready?” Leading TV channels then picked the story up, including China Central Television, the country’s major state-run broadcaster.



Powerful Patriots

Jessica Chen Weiss
Why has the Chinese government sometimes allowed and sometimes repressed nationalist, anti-foreign protests? What have been the international consequences of these choices? Anti-American demonstrations were permitted in 1999 but repressed in 2001 during two crises in U.S.-China relations. Anti-Japanese protests were tolerated in 1985, 2005, and 2012 but banned in 1990 and 1996. Protests over Taiwan, the issue of greatest concern to Chinese nationalists, have never been allowed. To explain this variation in China's response to nationalist mobilization, Powerful Patriots argues that Chinese and other authoritarian leaders weigh both diplomatic and domestic incentives to allow and repress nationalist protests. Autocrats may not face electoral constraints, but anti-foreign protests provide an alternative mechanism by which authoritarian leaders can reveal their vulnerability to public pressure. Because nationalist protests are costly to repress and may turn against the government, allowing protests demonstrates resolve and increases the domestic cost of diplomatic concessions. Repressing protests, by contrast, sends a credible signal of reassurance, facilitating diplomatic flexibility and signaling a willingness to spend domestic political capital for the sake of international cooperation. To illustrate the logic, the book traces the effect of domestic and diplomatic factors in China's management of nationalist protest in the post-Mao era (1978-2012) and the consequences for China's foreign relations.—Oxford University Press

Yet no major Japanese press seems to have covered the story. The occasion on which Abe has allegedly made the remarks was supposed to be what the Japanese call an informal “off-the-record gathering” between the prime minister and representatives of the reporters club of the Japanese cabinet. The first Global Times article identifies the sources as Shukan Gendai (which translates as “Modern Weekly”) magazine and a website called LITERA. The Modern Weekly is a well-known gossip magazine in Japan, while LITERA is a rather obscure website with a gossipy spin.

These articles are not isolated exceptions. News of imminent war, or something that sounds like it, is a constant drumbeat on Chinese media. Many major news portals have a subsection devoted entirely to military affairs; on Sohu’s, a sampling of titles from the week of July 21 includes: “Japan Acts Abnormally and Intends to Return to the Battlefield,” “Japan Spends Lavishly on War Machines,” “Abe Has Devised Multiple Preparations for China-Japan Conflict,” and “It’s Easier Now than During World War II to Suffocate Japan.”

Of course, not everyone in China believes what they read about Japan, or takes what they read to represent the sum totality of China’s relationship with Japan. And not all Japan-related state media coverage is negative. On July 9, Sohu ran a story about Chinese and Japanese youth engaging in “friendly hugs” in Tokyo. Chinese students studying in Japan had organized the early July cross-border hug-in, first covered by state mouthpiece People’s Daily on July 6. But the Chinese Internet being what it is, the article still drew mostly negative comments from Sohu readers. One wrote, “The longer we are friendly with Japan, the closer we are to being traitors.”