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CHINA: Sympathy for Japan Drowns Out Historic Hate

Mitch Moxley

BEIJING, Mar 18 2011 (IPS) - Despite deep historic tensions between the two Asian powers, a surge of sympathy has emerged among Chinese toward victims of last week’s earthquake and resulting tsunami in northern Japan, which has left an estimated 10,000 dead or missing.

These feelings of sympathy have so far drowned out other emotions – among them a darker one, which sees the twin catastrophes as some sort of karma for the many wartime atrocities Japan has inflicted on China.

“Because of our history, I have a bad impression of Japanese people,” Zhang Wei, a 28-year-old teacher here, told IPS. “So when I first heard the news I was sort of happy. I thought they deserved it.

“But then I saw the images on television,” Zhang said. “I saw children, so many people dead, so many people missing, and I felt very uncomfortable. Very sad. I had no idea it was that serious.”

Discussion of the quake and its aftermath has been among the hottest topics on China’s leading micro-blog service, ‘Sina Weibo’, and is one of the highest trending topics on ‘Baidu’, China’s leading search engine.

According to an online poll conducted by ‘Sina Weibo’ and the Chinese social networking website ‘Kaixin001’, 68 percent of respondents, or 2,827 people, said they were “praying” for the quake and tsunami victims. Seventeen percent said they had no feelings about the disaster.

According to a report in ‘Global Times’, a state-owned newspaper, tens of thousands of Chinese have left messages at popular news portals and expressing sympathy for victims. Many netizens have called on their countrymen to put aside their differences with Japan and pray for the victims.

“The Japanese haven’t done anything wrong. They are different from Japanese soldiers,” one user wrote on a ‘NetEase’ web forum. “You can hate those soldiers, but there is no reason to hate common Japanese people.”

“If fighting with Japanese soldiers, I will hold a submachine gun and be on the front lines,” wrote one commentator going by the name Zhangzxin8511. “Now, after the earthquake I will be the first to hold a stretcher if they need my help. Let’s pray for Japan.”

Some Chinese netizens have launched efforts to track down the missing. ‘Weibo’, the leading Twitter-like micro-blogging service, launched a platform over the weekend to helps users search for family and friends in Japan.

But these sentiments are by no means universal.

“I’ll never forget the Japanese war against China. They killed so many people,” Wei Peng, a 23-year-old student at Beijing Foreign Studies University, told IPS. “They deserve it.”

This sentiment reflects deep tensions that remain between the two neighbours, rooted in Japan’s invasion and occupation of parts of China from 1931 to 1945. Japanese atrocities against China are often depicted in Chinese film and television.

In September, the two countries quarrelled in a territorial dispute over the Diaoyu Islands. Japan held a Chinese trawler captain after his fishing boat collided with Japanese coast guard vessels near the islands, prompting Beijing to cancel diplomatic meetings until his release.

Negative reaction to the quake in Japan sparked a backlash among Chinese netizens, calling into question the naked nationalism of some commentators.

“How many Japanese would write, ‘Congratulations on the Wenchuan earthquake’?” said one commentator on the ‘Weibo’ homepage – referring to the 2008 Sichuan quake that killed an estimated 80,000 people.

The Chinese government has set aside tensions. It has sent a 15-member highly trained emergency rescue team to Oofunato, a Japanese city heavily damaged by the quake. Several team members participated in rescue missions following the Indonesian tsunami and earthquakes in Sichuan, Haiti and Pakistan.

The School of Journalism and Communications at Jinan University in Guangzhou conducted a random survey of 505 Guangzhou residents and found that 90 percent supported the decision to send a Chinese emergency team to Japan and 80 percent agreed China should supply more assistance, the ‘Guangdong Daily’ reported.

The Red Cross Society of China pledged to donate one million RMB (152,000 dollars) in emergency funds to its counterpart in Japan.

Earlier this week, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao offered “deep condolences” to the Japanese people. “China is also a country prone to earthquake disasters and we fully empathise with how they feel now. We will provide more as Japan needs it and we want to continue to help as necessary,” Wen said.

The government is also trying to quell growing fears here of nuclear radiation drifting from Japan, after explosions and fires at the severely damaged Fukushima Daiichi plant.

Anonymous text messages have been circulating in China warning of radiation. The Sina Weibo/Kaixin001 poll found that 82 percent of all respondents were worried about nuclear radiation.

Zhang said the dominant topic of discussion at her school is of radiation drift. “The government says we’re safe, so I’ve started to relax a bit. But I’ve seen American movies about what happens to victims of radiation. So of course I’m still a little worried.”

Coastal municipalities in China have begun monitoring radiation levels and aviation officials in Shenyang and Dalian cities have begun checking exposure levels of incoming passengers on flights from Japan, according to state media.

China’s has six nuclear power facilities currently in operation, but has suspended approvals for any new nuclear plants and said it will revise its safety standards.

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