Dec 20, 2023 - World
Axios Investigates

China is winning online allies in Okinawa’s independence movement

Photo illustration of musician and activist Rob Kajiwara alongside protestors in Okinawa and a map of Japan

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Richard Atrero de Guzman/NurPhoto via Getty Images

This story is part of a series supported by the Pulitzer Center.

A prominent pro-independence activist from the Japanese island of Okinawa is also a pro-Beijing influencer who praises China's ethnic minority policies and presents close ties to China as a way for native Okinawans to challenge Japanese rule.

Why it matters: Such messaging underscores Beijing's growing power to sway global narratives. Whether through ideological persuasion or the use of material incentives, such as granting access to China's 1 billion internet users, the party is winning allies across oceans, borders and key strategic fault lines.

The big picture

A growing number of non-Chinese social media users with online followers both in China and abroad promote content that often praises the Chinese government, defends it against criticism and aligns with its foreign policy goals.

  • The rise of pro-Beijing influencers, some of whom have received undisclosed support from the Chinese state, makes it more difficult to distinguish genuine sentiment from state-backed content — potentially compromising the integrity of online information and debate, analysts say.

Native Okinawan independence activist Rob Kajiwara has urged both Chinese and international web users to support his cause.

  • His depictions of China as a peaceful nation that has never exploited others track closely with the Chinese Communist Party's official version of China's history and modern rise.
  • Yet Kajiwara's advocacy for Indigenous rights and self-determination, central tenets of his activism, stands in stark contrast to his posts on social media denying the existence of repression in Xinjiang and Tibet and expressing support for Beijing's positions on Hong Kong and Taiwan.
  • Axios has not found evidence that Kajiwara has received support from the Chinese government.

Kajiwara did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Map: Will Chase/Axios

Background

Pro-independence sentiment, though now rare, has a long history in Okinawa, once the seat of the Ryukyu Kingdom with a language and culture distinct from that of Japan. Residents suffered heavily under Japanese imperial rule, and nearly one-third of the island's population died during the Battle of Okinawa near the end of World War II.

  • An independent or autonomous Okinawa, were it ever to materialize, would be a major boon for Beijing.
  • The archipelago is just an hour's flight from Taiwan and hosts more than 70% of all U.S. military facilities in Japan, making it a crucial staging ground for a potential U.S. defense of Taiwan in case of an attack from China.

This vast U.S. military presence, meanwhile, is deeply unpopular among most Okinawa residents, who have consistently voted for governors and local representatives who push Japan's central government to close the bases.

  • The growing U.S. rivalry with China has also stoked fears among many Okinawans that the bases would make them a target once again in the case of a military conflict between superpowers.
  • Japan's spy agency said in its 2016 annual report that the Chinese government was deepening ties to Okinawa pro-independence groups to divide Japanese public opinion, but it provided little evidence.

In June, Chinese state media featured remarks by Chinese leader Xi Jinping about the historical ties between Okinawa and China — Xi's first time publicly commenting on the issue since taking office a decade ago.

  • Chinese state media also praised Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki's visit to Beijing in July as seeking peace and friendship amid tensions with Japan.

Details

Kajiwara's online content alternates between criticizing U.S. and Japanese policy in Okinawa and praising the Chinese government's domestic and foreign policies.

  • His advocacy began in earnest in 2018, when he launched a petition opposing the construction of a new military base that garnered more than 200,000 signatures.

In 2019, he founded the Peace for Okinawa Coalition, an advocacy group that opposes Japanese rule over Okinawa, calls for the removal of all military bases from the island, and recognizes that "Luchu is an independent country in continuity," using another name for Okinawa.

  • On its website, the group also affirms its solidarity with other regions with independence movements, including Hawaii, Alaska, West Papua, Catalonia and Kashmir.
  • But also included on the list of the organization's official stances is one of China's foreign policy positions, which is unrelated to Okinawa — "We recognize the One China Policy." That's a reference to the CCP's claim to sovereignty over Taiwan, which has governed itself since 1949.

Kajiwara's presence on social media repeats other CCP talking points as well. He has 28,600 followers on X (formerly Twitter) and 124,000 on Chinese social media platform Weibo. He regularly writes in Chinese on both platforms.

  • Alongside posts about the latest news from Okinawa and the anti-U.S. base movement, Kajiwara expresses support for Beijing's most sensitive core interests, including its claims to sovereignty over Taiwan and its human rights records in Xinjiang and Tibet.

He has cast pro-democracy Hong Kongers as supporters of U.S. military imperialism, stated that Taiwan is "rightfully part of China," and said his organization has "never had any relationship with the insurgents in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Xinjiang."

He has praised China's ethnic minority policies in Xinjiang and Tibet, portraying China's annexation of Tibet as liberation rather than occupation, and writing, "Uyghurs and other minorities in China are being taught their native languages in schools."

  • Under China's current policies, millions of Uyghur and Tibetan children have reportedly been forcibly removed from their families and put in residential boarding schools where they are taught only in Chinese.

Kajiwara also has a degree of connectivity with prominent pro-China commentators online. He has retweeted posts by personalities such as Daniel Dumbrill and Carl Zha, who have amassed large followings by praising the Chinese government, denouncing Western imperialism and criticizing foreign media coverage of China.

  • He has also joined Zha's podcast and a webinar called "China Is Not Our Enemy" hosted by Jodie Evans, the founder of CodePink, a leading U.S. progressive group that has lobbied the U.S. government to reject its tough-on-China stance. CodePink was the subject of a New York Times investigation earlier this year revealing its close ties to a U.S. tech mogul who has financed pro-China content.

Kajiwara's pro-China views do not appear to be mainstream in Okinawa's independence movement, however. A more established pro-independence organization, the Association of Comprehensive Studies for Independence of the Lew Chewans, which has held regular seminars and other events since 2013, includes no mention of China in its charter.

  • Masaki Tomochi, a professor in the department of regional economics and environmental policy at Okinawa International University and a longtime independence activist, told Axios that online activism can help younger generations become more interested in the independence movement — but that "people like Rob Kajiwara are a big headache for us."

Zoom out

Over the past few years, the number of non-Chinese influencers with followings on Chinese social media platforms has grown dramatically.

  • Many influencers intersperse travel, food and fashion content with posts that parrot CCP talking points, including depicting Xinjiang and Tibet as happy, harmonious places without restrictions on ethnic minorities.

Researchers have uncovered direct links between the Chinese state and some foreign influencers, but such a link isn't necessary for Beijing to incentivize foreign influencers to repeat CCP positions, according to a November 2023 report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute about the rise of non-Chinese pro-Beijing influencers on Chinese social media.

  • "All foreign influencers in China are operating in an ecosystem over which the party has total control," the report states. "The temptation to garner traffic, profits and plaudits by aligning their content to party-approved narratives is proving tempting for a growing cadre of foreign influencers."
  • China has 1 billion internet users, about a fifth of the global count, who can only see posts on China-based social media platforms that are subject to extensive censorship and other forms of manipulation that amplify pro-CCP content.
  • This "market-enabled propaganda production" is particularly harmful to the integrity of public discourse, the report states, because "as more influencers are drawn into this ecosystem, the line between independent voices and those influenced by the party's narratives may become increasingly blurred."

Kajiwara has publicly noted the greater success of some of his posts on Chinese social media as compared to X. In an Oct.14 post on Weibo, he included side-by-side screenshots of a previous message he had cross-posted on both Weibo and X, about Tamaki's recent statement that he believed the local government in Okinawa and the central government in Tokyo to be "on equal footing" when it came to decisions affecting people in Okinawa.

  • "Same post, but big difference," Kajiwara wrote. "On Weibo it got 37,000 views and 442 likes. On Twitter it got just 1000 views and 26 likes."
  • He has also made direct appeals to Chinese people for their support. An April 2023 video posted to Chinese video-sharing site Bili Bili features Kajiwara's call for "Chinese netizens to support Ryukyu breaking away from Japan's illegal rule." The video was viewed 182,000 times.

Between the lines

Kajiwara presents China as a softer, gentler power than the U.S. or Japan, based in part on China's historically friendly relationship with the Ryukyu Kingdom as a tributary state.

  • This view echoes Beijing's official line that "'China has never and will never invade or bully others."
  • As China has grown in global stature, the Chinese government has sought to present itself as a different sort of superpower, one that, unlike the Western colonial powers, will never trample over the rights of smaller countries — thus implying there is no need to fear or oppose its rise.

A relatively warm view of China isn't unusual among Okinawans. "Okinawa has for centuries been a kind of intermediary between China and Japan," Dustin Wright, a history professor at California State University, Monterey Bay, whose work focuses on protests in Okinawa, told Axios in an interview. "That's a point of pride for many Okinawans, that they have this bicultural history that doesn't naturally lend them allegiance to either side."

But Kajiwara takes it a step further, presenting Beijing as a would-be savior of an independent Okinawa. In a video posted to his YouTube channel about the historical ties between Okinawa and China, Kajiwara said that China under the Ming and Qing dynasties championed the sovereignty of the Ryukyu Kingdom and that the Qing government tried to prevent the island from losing its sovereignty when Japan annexed it in 1879.

  • At that time, Kajiwara said, "Some Luchuans fled to China in exile where they hoped and prayed for the day that China would once again become strong enough to help Luchu drive out the foreign invaders and restore Luchu's independence."
  • Kajiwara sees this view of Beijing's support as continuing up to the present day. He claimed in the CodePink webinar that the "People's Republic of China, including the Communist Party of China, has always recognized Luchuans' rise to self-determination."

In 2022, Kajiwara spoke on the sidelines of a United Nations Human Rights Council meeting about the negative effects of colonialism, and he finished his presentation by praising China.

  • "China is not a threat to Luchu, Hawaii, Guam or any other nation in the Pacific," Kajiwara said. "Rather, China offers an opportunity at multi-polarity, an opportunity to expand our business, trade and cross-cultural relations in mutually beneficial ways."
  • "This is how we can build a more peaceful and prosperous society for us all."

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