What Sino-Japanese tension looks like from China

Shanghaiist recently published an article about Japanese businessmen getting attacked by some drunken Chinese guys while having dinner on the Bund. If patriotism can overwhelm reason on the Bund, it can happen anywhere in China. Here’s what all this tension feels like from Shanghai.

For nearly a month, the news in China and the US seemed to only focus on the Sino-Japanese dispute about the small set of islands at the center of increasing tensions. Although I was in China when things started to get tense, at the height of the dispute my wife and I were on vacation in the US. But when we returned to Shanghai things were still tense, so I wanted to share how it feels for a foreigner living in China in the midst of this drama.

We live in a part of Shanghai that has a lot of Japanese residents, so I would expect tension in this part of town. Interestingly, I haven’t personally witnessed anything overt; though the attack referenced in the Shanghaiist article did occur while we were here. Despite not seeing anything recently, I’ve always felt like the majority of people in China are wound up so tight that they can snap at any moment.

Propellers under tension

When I was a kid, I used to play with balsa wood propeller planes that were very popular at the time. This was before computer games were popular, so kids actually played outside — crazy, I know. You just attached a rubber band to the propeller, wound it up as tight as you could, threw the plane, and watched it soar. No iDevice required for hours of fun. Inevitably, I would want to see how far I could make the plane go and would wind the propeller up as tight as I could. But sometimes my finger slipped while winding it up and the propeller smacked me, reminding me it was still in charge.

Last week, while I was in Hangzhou (a city about 100 miles from Shanghai), I visited a tech incubator. I arrived early, so I walked around the beautiful park-like area their offices occupied. I saw some old guys who were taking pictures there and when one of them discovered I could speak Chinese he got very chatty. As soon as he found out I am American he started talking about China’s new aircraft carrier, and said he was sure America was worried about it. I barely got a word in before he started ranting about China’s power, and how the aircraft carrier would be useful if the dispute over the islands continues to escalate. I could tell decades of pent-up feelings were coming to a boil inside of him: an elderly pressure cooker with the lid kept on for too long who had finally found an American he could take it out on. During his tirade I was reminded of that propeller: always ready to bite back when it is wound up a bit too tight.

Just another duck on the pond

It’s not that this feeling of people here being wound up too tight is new — I’ve felt like this ever since the first time I moved to China in 2001. I’m also not implying that China is going to disintegrate tomorrow; I’ve been expecting it to melt down for over a decade now, so I’m beginning to think I might be wrong about the whole thing. But I still feel the simmering tension could boil over at any time — and it would likely be something minor that nudges people over the edge. Like, for example, a seemingly insignificant set of islands.

There is a quote I like from “The Replacements”, a terrible Keanu Reeves football movie my sister and I love, that describes China’s ever-nascent tension well. Gene Hackman, the coach, is talking to Keanu Reeves, the quarterback, about his upcoming game. He says Keanu Reeves is “like a duck on the pond.” — calm above the water, but his feet are churning a mile a minute beneath the surface.

Only the downtrodden

Despite the article about that attack in Shanghaiist, and other articles about Chinese overturning Japanese cars, I haven’t seen signs of tension around this most recent Sino-Japanese dispute. And even though I feel like there’s a general tension that has existed for a long time, it doesn’t feel like people from all walks of life are ready to snap — maybe that’s the most interesting part.

Those who have benefited most from China’s rapid economic progress are also the ones who gain the most from China’s stability. I doubt they were out in the streets during the recent demonstrations — they have too much to lose. The ones on the streets are the young and the downtrodden, the zealots and the exploited. Those who aren’t getting a piece of the growing pie are more easily upset, and sometimes frustration with their economic situation finds an outlet in the causes they are allowed to demonstrate about — in this case, a small set of islands. Even though I haven’t witnessed anything significant during this dispute, it’s the exploited, churning their feet just beneath the surface of the apparently calm water, who concern me. They’re the ones who keep me watching out for trouble while I’m out for dinner or walking down the street. I think they’re also the ones who concern those with a lot to lose.

Have you experienced this tension in China? Do you think that I’m just being paranoid and misinterpreting this tension? Please share your experiences and comments below.

Related reading

  • Here’s another example of people snapping in China, though not related to a Japanese tourist in this case: Illegal Shanghai taxi driver runs over German, twice.
  • An article posted on Shanghaiist on October 28th about a real estate agency that posted a sign saying they wouldn’t do business with “Japanese pigs”. The article talks about the agency manager threatening a foreigner when he didn’t want to do business with them because of their racist attitudes.
  • The Economist recently published an article about the imminent political transition and the significant challenges facing the new political leadership.

What do you think?