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China Pumps Up the Volume Against Japan

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China Pumps Up the Volume Against Japan
China Pumps Up the Volume Against Japan

Beijing – During a 2012 diplomatic feud, China’s government allowed thousands of protesters to pelt Japan’s embassy in Beijing with eggs and plastic waters bottles. Now, as tensions are flaring again, China’s diplomats are taking a more button-down tack.

Dressed in tailored suits and speaking fluent English, China’s envoys are engaged in a global campaign to vilify Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe.

Beijing’s traditionally camera-shy envoys from Russia to Ethiopia and the U.S. are on a media blitz to label Mr. Abe a militarist and a threat to regional stability. One Chinese official compared Japan under Mr. Abe to Lord Voldemort—the arch-villain in the “Harry Potter” novels.

Mr. Abe’s outlook on history and right-wing tendency are “a recipe for trouble,” Cui Tiankai, China’s ambassador to Washington, told television interviewer Charlie Rose last month.

The onslaught began after Mr. Abe deeply offended Beijing with his surprise visit to a controversial war shrine in December. Although he said hadn’t intended to hurt any feelings with the visit, China was outraged. Since then, Beijing has sought to rally support from key Japanese allies, including the U.S. and the United Kingdom.

“This is how you do public diplomacy,” said Wang Dong, a Northeast Asia security specialist at Peking University. “You speak directly to engage the American public and also the American policy makers.”

The strategy is a marked change from how it handled the 2012 flare-up over a stretch of tiny uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. Aside from the demonstrations outside Japan’s embassy at the time, protesters elsewhere attacked Japanese-made cars and forced Japanese retailers to close. State media later condemned the violence.

“I think the Chinese have felt that they have the diplomatic upper hand around the world, so they don’t want to have anti-Japanese protests creating bad headlines,” said Robert Ross, a professor of political science at Boston College. “When China was weak, it was one of the only instruments they had. Now they have other means.”

China’s ambassador to Washington, Mr. Cui, is among those charged with building up China’s brand. This week, he posed for pictures with his wife while attending the Super Bowl, and last month penned an op-ed in the Washington Post staking out China’s position on Mr. Abe.

“I think this is a real challenge, not only to the postwar international order but also to the international conscience,” he said of Mr. Abe on Mr. Rose’s show.

The latest row between the Asia-Pacific region’s largest economies stems from Mr. Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which honors Japanese killed during World War II, including convicted war criminals, and serves as a bridge to Japan’s militarist past when it occupied parts of China and other nations.

U.S. officials have sought assurance that Tokyo will refrain from taking steps that further aggravate tensions, but some in China’s foreign-policy community have grown frustrated by what they view as blind U.S. support of Japan, which partly explains China’s efforts to work outside normal diplomatic channels.

Mr. Abe isn’t the first Japanese prime minister to visit Yasukuni, but the timing of his surprise Dec. 26 outing, coming less than a week after a meeting between Japan’s foreign minister and China’s ambassador in Tokyo, stirred outrage in Beijing.

Almost immediately after the visit, China’s ambassador to the U.K., Liu Xiaoming, wrote an op-ed for the Telegraph newspaper likening perceived militarism under Mr. Abe to “the haunting Voldemort of Japan.”

Japan’s ambassador to the U.K. shot back, turning the Harry Potter metaphor around on his Chinese counterpart. China must choose one of two paths, Keiichi Hayashi wrote in the Telegraph: On one hand, it could seek dialogue with Japan. “The other is to play the role of Voldemort in the region by letting loose the evil of an arms race and escalation of tensions.”

The senior diplomats reiterated those points in back-to-back interviews with the BBC days later.

The efforts are receiving top-level leaders’ support. During a meeting of senior propaganda and ideology officials in August, President Xi Jinping urged the country to “speak China’s story and disseminate China’s voice,” according to an account by the official Xinhua news agency.

Party media have embraced the phrase, which has frequently appeared since in party media. China deputy propaganda chief Cai Mingzhao wrote in the party’s main newspaper, the People’s Daily, that the story of China’s rise was a peaceful one, and beneficial to countries everywhere. Like other leaders, he says it is a message that needs to be better shared.

Boosting the resonance of China’s message is one key objective, said Craig Hayden, an expert on public diplomacy at American University.

“While China’s public diplomacy strategy has historically relied upon the promotion of its culture as a way to foster credibility and understanding among foreign audiences, recent strategic statements seem to suggest that attention is being focused on how to make its political message more credible,” he said.

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