There’s been a lot of press about Japan here lately, with the line “Think we’ll go to war?” sneaking into more than a few cocktail party conversations. For those who aren’t familiar with the historical relationship between China and Japan, just know that after two Sino-Japanese wars in which Japan invaded China, the “Nanjing Massacre” in 1937 (where Japanese troops raided, killed, and raped Chinese citizens in Nanjing) and WWII, which again brought Chinese troops face to face with Japanese, relations between the two aren’t exactly chipper.
Disputes regarding ownership of islands in the East China Sea are not a recent development— the photo above was taken in Xi’an in 2010 when the entire city mobilized to protest the Japanese claim of the Diaoyu Islands. Recently, protests and marches have again commenced in a number of eastern cities. Smashing Japanese cars is the newest form of protest, which many non-participants (myself included) find somewhat amusing as nearly 80% of cars here are Toyotas…
Still, aside from a few lively uprisings in Xi’an and other youthful cities, the urge to protest has yet to enter the mainstream— I have not personally witnessed any protests or disturbances of any kind (I’ve heard that southern China is more stable in general when it comes to these issues, primarily because the environment and lifestyle is more comfortable than that up north). I would like to share an article from Nanfang Zhoumo (南方周末) , the subject of which I also spotted on the news while riding to work today. The article examines why the word “reason” or “理性” has become the phrase most often used in tandem with news about the protests. It is a word embraced by both the government and people to direct the emotion of citizens during this time of conflict with Japan. According to the logic of most Chinese, animosity towards Japan for its historical wrongdoings is not juvenile by any means— on the contrary, it is a reasonable stance to take in order to defend the national rights of China that have frequently been challenged in the past.
Protest, according to the article, is a “double-edged sword”— all benefits gained are inevitably accompanied by the risk of immense loss. Counter to popular belief, in the case of Japan, the Chinese government does not restrict the voice of the collective populace— instead, it actively responds to their calls. In this age of modern protest, in order to prevent significant loss or harm to society, the collective voice must be expressed in a rational manner, i.e., there should be a complete set of system specifications to guide and direct the pursuit of personal interest and social justice. In the words of the article, “‘Reason’, simply put, at its most minimum standard does not harm the lawful rights and interests of others.” (“理性”，简单地说，其最起码的标准是不损害其他人的合法权益). Yet reaching this standard, in our reality, is easier said than done.
The article goes on to describe an ideal world for protest where demonstrators could unite and express their opinions in public without disturbing urban traffic or interrupting the work and lives of others. The finest “rational” we could imagine would consist of demonstrators processing in prescribed routes with police officers acting as “referees”— there to make a call when necessary but passive to the degree that protesters may not even feel their presence (警察仿佛一场精彩比赛的裁判，他们游弋在最需要他们出现的地方，但却几乎让人感觉不到他们的存在).
Although the ideal of a purely rational world is still a fair distance away, the article champions the high school students in Guangzhou who spontaneously cleared away garbage on the streets and the parade of college students shouting “Rationality!” over and over again for giving us the sense that “reason” is not that far away.
Now for my commentary: I think the terms “rational” and “reason” are extremely dangerous for the ease with which they can be defined or defended subjectively. Any criminal will tell you that his or her actions were “reasonable”, because what is rational for an individual may not be rational for others or for society at large. To have a universal consensus on what comprises “rational” action, every country, every government, every individual would need to stand on some common foundation of beliefs. But one look at the disconnect between facts regarding ownership of the Diaoyu Islands and the notion of common ground feels inconceivable.
Knowing that college students chanted “rationality” does not give me hope that Chinese society is nearing some utopian model of systemized, constructive protest. On the contrary, it brings me back to AP English, 1984, and a world of “doublespeak”.