Scattered Thoughts on Japan and China’s Hedgehog Dilemma

by tigermanifesto


I understand China and Japan’s current and recent relationship to be one of acute tension caused by an attraction-antagonism dynamic. Both countries are increasingly interdependent in the economic sphere, but this has not resulted in the amelioration of historical grievances or current tensions because capitalist competition for resources and markets increases antagonism. There are numerous forces at play here, and I wanted to write a short post outlining some of my own ideas for how the history of East Asia has played out in the last few decades, culminating in the post-crisis history we are currently attempting to understand.

Factor 1: Japanese Investment in China

As key manufacturing industries in Japan faced problems accumulating capital with a (relatively) high-paid domestic workforce and increasingly subject to international competition because of neoliberal reforms haphazardly implemented since the 1980s, it began to export more and more capital to China. The result is that many Japanese cars, electronics, etc. are manufactured in China, which has done nothing to alleviate social and economic stagnation in the home country but has allowed individual corporations to survive. Recent Chinese protests against Japan (in 2012 most recently) often focused on the destruction of Japanese-branded commodities and the shaming of Chinese people who bought them.

Factor 2: Nationalism as the governing ideology of both countries

Since the Deng Xiaoping reforms, socialism has been displaced as the dominant party ideology in China by GDP-obsessed nationalism. Though the state was ambivalent about popular protests against Japan, it allowed them to proceed as long as they didn’t target national policies. This indicates that the PRC and the ruling CPC relies on nationalism as unifying ideology while fearing popular radicalization. In particular, a popular nationalism that endangered China’s hard-fought membership in the capitalist world system would spell trouble for the ruling class if it became widespread.

In Japan, meanwhile, PM Shinzo Abe is chipping away at the pacifist Article 9 of the Japanese constitution. Popular opposition is rising, but the Japanese state has been pivoting towards a renewed Japanese nationalism and assertiveness in foreign relations. It’s building its military capabilities and loosening the bonds on where and when it can intervene. It’s probably the case that Japanese and Chinese nationalisms feed off of their own antagonism, with nationalists in each country making different historical and political cases for the strengthening of their own nation vis-a-vis the other. Capitalist competition, nominally an economic matter, is thus to a degree overdetermined by its political connotations as the two nations try to open new markets for their goods and compete for influence in the Global South, especially SE Asia and Africa. Similar competitive dynamics contributed, lest we forget, to the outbreak of WWI.

Chinese and Japanese nationalism are not directly comparable, of course. Japanese nationalism, emerging in the Meiji era, traces its own heritage back to the military state of WWII and pre-war imperialism. Chinese nationalism has its own roots in national liberation struggles, though in the current context its progressive content is much more ambiguous and contested.

Factor 3: Rise of an Urban Consumer Class in China

One of the most intriguing parts of the recent protests against Japan in China is that it focused heavily on Japanese imports. The friction that sparked the protests involved territorial and resource disputes in the South China Sea, but the preferred objects for Chinese protest were the ones most readily associated with Japan: commodities. The content of these protests was thus shaped by Japanese commodities and their availability to a certain class of Chinese person. Reports on these protest movements focus on two pieces: discussions of the issues on online forums and their urban character. Nationalist protests against Japan broke out not only in places like Xi’an, which are weapons manufacturing centres, but also in industrial cities like Shenzhen, where many Japanese firms have industrial operations. It’s likely that China’s middle class has been at least partly shaped by the availability of Japanese consumer goods, and the working class by building those goods. But the fact that potential boycotts were advocated online and that sales for Japanese cars dropped significantly after the protest movement broke out shows there was at least a large section of protestors who are relatively prosperous. This has potential implications for how to analyze the class character of Chinese nationalism and its adherents since the 1980s.


We can conclude that the dynamics of capitalist competition, capital export and exploitation of lower-wage workers in China, and the entrenchment of nationalist politics in both countries indicate that the new economic closeness between Japan and China will not necessarily be amicable. Discovering how this situation came to be requires a historical investigation into the relations between the two countries against the backdrop of neoliberal globalization and the increasing regionalization of East Asia after 1990 (in the ideological sphere, see Japanese Asianism after the Cold War ended). The possibility of antagonism, either directly or through proxies, cannot be neglected.