July 12, 2022
Welcome back to Axios China. Today we're looking at Chinese nationalists rejoicing over former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's death, a conversation with Taiwan's foreign minister, China's population projections, and lots more.
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Today's newsletter is 1,740 words, a 6½-minute read.
1 big thing: Chinese nationalists celebrate Abe's assassination
The jubilation that many Chinese nationalist netizens expressed over last week's assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe underscores the depth of anti-Japan sentiment in China — and the challenge Beijing faces in controlling the domestic nationalism it has often stoked.
Why it matters: To the Chinese Communist Party and its domestic supporters, Abe represented what they saw as an unwelcome resurgence of Japanese nationalism and militarism.
- The Chinese government distanced itself from the online revelry. The Chinese Embassy in Tokyo offered condolences to Abe's family, and Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Zhao Lijian said, "This unexpected incident should not be linked with China-Japan relations."
Details: The former Japanese prime minister died on July 8 after authorities said a 41-year-old unemployed Japanese man shot him with a homemade gun during a campaign event.
- Abe first served as prime minister from 2006 to 2007 and again from 2012 to 2020, when he resigned citing medical issues, making him Japan's longest-serving prime minister.
What's happening: News of the assassination became a top trending topic on Chinese social media platform Weibo, where comments celebrating Abe's death proliferated and soon garnered tens of thousands of likes.
- Some people called the shooter a "hero," while others posted champagne emojis.
- Many comments referred to the atrocities the Japanese army committed during its World War II-era invasion of China. “We are not qualified to forgive the wicked for the millions of compatriots who died in the war against China and the Nanjing Massacre!!!” one such comment stated, per Politico.
- Chinese people who appeared to mourn Abe's passing were also targeted. A Japan-based Chinese journalist who fought back tears during a live broadcast about Abe's death was accused of being unpatriotic on Chinese social media, with one commenter saying, “I’m baffled to see you crying, are you even Chinese?” The reporter later posted an apology.
Yes, but: Nationalist content is also less likely to get censored on China's tightly controlled internet, at times making pro-Beijing voices seem more dominant than they really are.
- Some prominent nationalist voices also pushed back. Hu Xijin, the former editor of the Party-backed Global Times, wrote on Weibo that he felt sympathy over Abe's death and that political disputes should be set aside for now.
Between the lines: During his tenure, Abe angered Chinese nationalists by pushing for Japan to reject its constitutionally mandated pacifism and become a military power.
- Abe championed a more assertive foreign policy, declaring in a 2013 speech that "Japan is back."
- He strengthened Japan's partnership with the U.S. and urged like-minded democracies to work together in the "Indo-Pacific" — a term later adopted by the Trump administration to signal a vision of Asia in which China wasn't the dominant power.
Background: Anti-Japan sentiment in China runs deep. In addition to lingering anger over war crimes, many Chinese people support Beijing's territorial claims over the Senkaku Islands, uninhabited islands in the East China Sea currently administered by Japan.
- The party has also encouraged anti-Japanese sentiment through mandatory "patriotic education" in schools, which emphasizes China's victimization at the hands of foreign powers.
Meanwhile: That state-fanned nationalism can cause problems for Beijing. “The Chinese authorities don’t want to see rampant nationalistic sentiment, which may affect China’s intention of easing relations with Japan and the U.S.,” former Tsinghua University political lecturer Wu Qiang told the South China Morning Post.
- “Easing relations is critical for Beijing, especially after the Ukraine war. But the radical nationalist reaction [to Abe’s assassination] seems kind of out of control," Wu said.
2. Taiwan appeals to pro-Ukraine democracies for support
The strong Western response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine is a "powerful deterrent" against a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan, Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu told me last month.
The big picture: Wu cast Taiwan's perseverance against China as part of a larger democratic struggle against authoritarianism, and he urged fellow democracies to come to Taiwan's aid in the case of a Chinese military attack.
- I spoke to Wu via video link during a panel discussion at a conference in Brussels last month hosted by the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
What he's saying: Liberal democracies around the world are "more united than at any moment than I've seen in the past few decades," Wu said.
- "This is a very strong indicator to the Chinese government that any kind of aggression against another democracy is going to provoke a reaction similar to what the fellow democracies have done against Russia," Wu said.
- "If Taiwan is attacked unprovoked, our hope is that the fellow democracies can rally around Taiwan to deter the Chinese or to fight against the Chinese."
The Taiwanese government is learning everything it can from Ukraine's defense against Russia, Wu said.
- That includes the importance of numerous factors, such as asymmetric warfare capabilities, a muscular response from the international community, and the willingness of citizens to take up arms to defend territory.
- Wu warned that Taiwan's democracy is under threat from China, including through diplomatic isolation, military threat, cyberattack and cognitive warfare.
What to watch: "We want to improve our relations with fellow democracies so that they can understand Taiwan more and can show support to Taiwan when we need it," Wu said.
- He added that Taiwanese officials have been discussing with the U.S. government how Taiwan can achieve that goal.
The bottom line: "Democracy is something that is deep in our belief system, and we don't want anything, or anybody, or any country to take it away from us," Wu said.
Disclosure: The German Marshall Fund covered the cost of this reporter's trip to Brussels.
3. Catch up quick
1. Police cracked down violently on protesters in the Chinese city of Zhengzhou, where local banks have frozen cash withdrawals for months and COVID restrictions have been used to keep protesters home, the New York Times reports.
2. Secretary of State Antony Blinken criticized China's support for Russia in a meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, the Wall Street Journal reports.
3. Several current and former Homeland Security officials were indicted in an alleged scheme to silence China critics in the U.S. Go deeper.
4. U.S. and U.K. security chiefs issued a joint warning about Chinese state-backed theft targeting tech companies. Go deeper.
5. A rise in COVID cases pushed China's stock indices lower, the Wall Street Journal reports.
4. New book highlights a "golden era" for Chinese indie film
The internet and new digital technologies allowed independent film to flourish in China over the past two decades, a film scholar writes in a new book.
The big picture: Filmmakers in China's rural areas taught themselves filmmaking, shunned major production studios, and showcased their work directly to online audiences, allowing authentic rural stories to challenge more dominant urban narratives.
- But stricter censorship now threatens the "golden period" that lasted from the mid-2000s to the mid-2010s, author Karen Ma says.
Details: For her new book, China's Millennial Digital Generation, Ma conducted extensive interviews with Chinese indie filmmakers who were born around the 1980s and have focused their work on their home regions in China, rather than the country's large metropolises.
- These filmmakers "were among the first from their villages to embrace cell phones, the Internet and other modern technology," Ma writes. "This enabled them to quietly but deliberately question with thought-provoking art-house narratives the singular, official image of a glorious urban China."
Background: Ma was inspired to write the book after watching Chinese indie films in Beijing in the early 2010s, which confirmed her "long-held suspicion — that the glitzy commercial films at regular Chinese cinemas didn’t tell half of the story of modern China’s rise," she writes.
- Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou, two of the greats among Chinese film directors, made acclaimed films like "Raise the Red Lantern" and "Farewell My Concubine" in the 1990s, but have now pivoted to making "politically correct" blockbusters, Ma writes.
- Unlike film directors from earlier generations, writes Ma, "many younger directors have deliberately zoomed in on current rural concerns and the lives of those often overlooked as China sheds its image as a developing nation and emerges as a capitalist powerhouse."
Filmmaker Li Ruijun, featured in the book, is a good example of how these grassroots filmmakers are "devoted to telling the rural tale," Ma told Axios in an interview.
- His 2012 film "Fly with the Crane" tells the story of a village coffin-maker whose livelihood is destroyed when the government makes a new policy requiring cremation.
- The film explores how elderly village residents would choose their coffins carefully and with pride, even trying them out. The coffin-maker reflects on life and death in a village. His belief is that "I have no say in how I came into this world but at least let me have a say in how I leave this world," Ma told Axios.
What to watch: New guidelines issued in 2022 extend traditional film censorship guidelines to online television and movies.
Go deeper: China builds its own movie empire
5. What I'm reading
Competing with BRI: G7's $600 billion infrastructure bid to counter China (Axios)
- "The [Belt and Road Initiative] is now in a state of crisis as sovereign debt distress spreads," my Axios colleague Kate Marino writes.
- "For example: 60% of BRI loans are to countries now in financial distress compared to 5% in 2010. Meanwhile, 35% of the BRI infrastructure project portfolio faces a major implementation problem."
Amplifying Moscow: The Nazification of Ukraine in the Chinese information space (EUvsDisinfo)
- This publication of the European External Action Service, the EU's foreign policy arm, features a guest post from DoubleThink Lab, a research organization in Taiwan known for its work uncovering Chinese state-backed online disinformation.
- "Persistent pro-Kremlin manipulation and disinformation around the Azov Battalion" — a Ukrainian unit with far-right ties — "has contributed to a belief among the Chinese public that Ukraine and Russia bear equal responsibility for the war in Ukraine."
Cultivating friendly forces: The Chinese Communist Party’s influence operations in the Xinjiang Diaspora (Australian Strategic Policy Institute)
- "Through its complex united front system, the CCP is actively monitoring members of the diaspora, including Uyghurs, creating databases of actionable intelligence, and mobilising community organisations in the diaspora to counter international criticism of its repressive policies in Xinjiang while promoting its own policies and interests abroad."
6. 1 chart to go: India's population projected to surpass China's in 2023
India's population will overtake that of China as early as next year, according to a new UN report.
- Each country currently has over 1.4 billion people.
- China's population may begin to decline as early as 2023, the report states.
A big thank you to Laurin-Whitney Gottbrath and Eileen O'Reilly for edits, Sheryl Miller for copy edits, and Aïda Amer, Victoria Ellis and Nicki Camberg for visuals.