Chinese Books on Japanese and Korean Images of China

Wu Guangwei, Riben de Zhongguo xingxiang [How Japan Views China] (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 2010)

Dong Xiangrong, Wang Xiaoleng, Li Yongchun, Hanguoren xinmuzhong de Zhongguo xingxiang [How the Koreans View China] (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 2011)

Liang Yunxiang, Riben waijiao yu Zhongri guanxi [Foreign Policy and Sino-Japanese Relations] (Beijing: Shijie zhishi chubanshe, 2012)

Liu Jiangyong, et. al, eds., Zhanhou Riben zhengzhi sichao yu Zhongri guanxi [Sino-Japanese Relations and Japanese Political Ideological Trends since 1945] (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 2013)

Recent efforts by Chinese academics to gain a better understanding of images of China in Japan and South Korea serve several purposes: to develop a new field of academic analysis; to justify policies and attitudes by exposing misinformation and the basis of erroneous views in critical neighboring states; and to offer guidance on how China can improve its image and its soft power. The authors are well informed. Some present excellent documentation. Their work is to be distinguished from the sensationalist writing on Japan and even, notably in 2008-2012, on South Korea, aimed at mobilizing public outrage. Yet, they straddle a fine line between scholarship on a high plain and partisanship serving leadership objectives. A look at four books gives us a basis for evaluating the contributions that are made and the balance achieved.

The two books by Wu Guangwei, Dong Xiangrong, et al., are each part of a wider series, the former edited by Zhou Ning and the latter introduced by Zhang Yunling. The first book is placed in the context of transnational cultural hegemonism and views China as part of Western modernity and poses the question of what are West and East in the context of globalization. It offers a broad historical sweep of images in Japan, covering China at different points in time, stressing from the late 1990s the image of the “China threat.” Although noting contradictory images, the main focus is negative ones, explained as serving the goals of justifying military development in Japan, enabling it to escape from its postwar system, following the United States in its containment policy, distracting the Japanese public after years of stagnation, and striving to block China from growing stronger. (pp. 151-54) There is no attempt to consider China’s responsibility for Japanese concerns or reflect on Japanese efforts to find common ground. Published in mid-2010 after the DPJ had been striving to boost “fraternal relations” with China, this book lacks solid empirical footing in support of generalizations that are still widely showcased in Chinese publications.

The Dong et al. book, by contrast, is an empirical treasure chest. It is forthright in detailing negative images in South Korea of China, drawing on textbooks, survey data, a focus group study, and interviews with experts. Its careful marshaling of evidence makes a powerful case for concerted efforts at image improvement by China. Indeed, the book is directed at improving China’s soft power. Zhang Yunling makes a plea for this, emphasizing the need to look squarely at how others view China and to strive hard, despite the difficulty, to forge a friendly, respected image. The book is largely in line with his appeal, but its explanations for South Korean attitudes are one-sided, given the total absence of criticism of China’s behavior.

In the chapter on South Korean media, the authors stress its big impact on the public, but they explain that fierce market competition leads to extreme coverage, as in the way the Koguryo history dispute was handled. Describing the South Korean public as naturally very emotional and easily aroused as well as rather ignorant about the outside world, they give an impression of readers duped by dubious reports. (p. 41) In the chapter on textbooks, we learn that they convey Cold War logic, taking the Western viewpoint and treating China as the communist “other.” They are accused of taking an ideological approach, including a lack of objectivity on Tibet and Taiwan as well as excessive coverage of periods such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. (p. 82) In analyzing survey results, the authors conclude that South Koreans feel superior to China, but they are also envious and do not want China’s development to succeed. Respondents also blame Chinese for looking down on “little” South Korea. Having been convinced of South Korea’s superiority, they are unwilling to accept China’s rise and, except for business forces, are not optimistic about its impact. Having a victim consciousness, they transfer blame for their own faults to the “other.” Given these doubts, the authors call for long-term efforts to increase trust. (pp. 92, 99, 145-146) The book concludes by recognizing a huge gap between Chinese self-perceptions and South Korean views of China (p. 190) and gives explanations rooted in history, culture, and psychology, mainly subjective in nature. Noting that China should be sensitive to the thinking of others, it argues that time will be required for psychologically accepting China’s rise. Coverage of bilateral relations as a factor is brief without any attention to the forces that have mattered.

The first advice offered to China is to change through economic development; so South Koreans will not continue to underestimate its world rank and focus on the disadvantages rather than the opportunities in economic relations. Yet, the principal problem, as reported, is images of great inequality, environment damage, and less complementarity between economies as China becomes more competitive. To meet these concerns China would have to do more than become an economic colossus so advanced and dominant to overcome its image problem. The question of how to put economic success in the service of international respect is not limited to one state. It could draw attention to fears abroad of overdependence, but the authors avoid that.

The second piece of advice to China is to provide more positive signals about Sino-South Korean relations. Indeed, their survey found that China is less trusted than the United States, Japan, and even Russia. The authors do not explain what signals are required, but they list in order what focus groups said about the causes of perceived problems in relations. First is the Sino-North Korean alliance, as seen in the answers of 82 percent of respondents that China does not support reunification. Second is divergence over history, especially the ancient Koguryo state. Third is the contrast in social systems, indicated by those who point to China’s socialist system. Given the improvement in China’s image in 2013, this advice may have helped guide policies.

A third problem is covered at length but does not appear in advice on what is to be done. It is the cultural gap, as seen in the adjectives selected by South Koreans to describe Chinese, and in the mutual distrust aroused by what Chinese see as Korean claims to have improved on Confucianism or to have invented cultural festivals that Chinese regard as their own. The adjectives selected range from dirty to arrogant, considering the Chinese to be insensitive to the feelings of others and devious or calculating. No mention is made of how arrogantly China’s leaders have treated South Korean leaders or how little effort China has made to recognize the diversity of Confucianism. In the introduction to the book, Zhang Yunling warns that China cannot just stress the positive and raise its image. It must have the self-confidence to look squarely at how others view it and recognize that it can be seen as scary, a monster swallowing the world. This forthright study offers valuable insight into what the dark side of China’s image is and how it might best respond. The bulk of the book, however, does not develop the warnings raised by Zhang, a champion for two decades of boosting China’s image in Southeast Asia and South Korea, at a time when attitudes in China were changing and his soft line no longer was in the mainstream.

The Liang book is critical of Japan’s foreign policy and handling of relations with China, but it precedes the extreme rancor and pessimism that would soon follow. On Japan’s relations with ASEAN, it faults Japan’s effort to establish a closer bond than other countries have with the regional organization, but confidently explains that nothing will come of it. Japan may want to become the spokesperson for Asia and to gain an edge in competition with China, but ASEAN is insisting on a balance of great powers. Moreover, given contradictions between the Japanese and US positions in the region, Japan will be hard-pressed to pursue a fully independent approach. With China’s comprehensive national power widening the gap with Japan, its influence with ASEAN will be growing, meaning that ASEAN cannot do what Japan wants. In regard to the prospects for East Asian regionalism, the book also faults only Japan without abandoning hope for a new effort, including Japan’s acceptance of the idea that “reentry to Asia” means turning away from the West. It traces the rise from the 1980s of East Asian consciousness, conceiving the region’s development as the East Asian model, raising the theme of Asian values, and tracing the spirit of the region to Confucianism. As economic growth accelerated and as states normalized relations with China, it was only natural that nations raised the goal of cultural independence from the West. With the spread of regionalism elsewhere in the 1990s, the states of Asia were pressured to seek it too. Yet, Japan foiled this effort, seeking identity in its own history at the price of shared norms and arousing distrust in other nations, not least of all among the Chinese public. Moreover, raising the specter of the “China threat” and building up its military versus China, as well as joining the United States in joint military activities, Japan has thwarted the move to regionalism. Its themes of democracy and human rights and its hosting of the Dalai Lama, Lee Teng-hui, and others have harmed bilateral relations. While ASEAN+3 and the China-Japan-South Korean summit offered hope, the author observes, the TPP splits China and Japan. The book ends with an appeal for new efforts to forge East Asian identity. It does not propose unity exclusive of Japan, still taking the lingering view of including Japan.

The Liu et al. book broadly covers the period since 1945 ranging over many themes, but its final sections focus on identity, comparative nationalism, and the different concepts of historical experience and developmental models in Japan and China. The conclusion is that Japan’s shift to the right has damaged relations with China and if Japan does not change course on the Diaoyu/Senkaku issue, keeps strengthening its military forces versus China, continues tightening its alliance with the United States, and does not reflect differently on its history of expansion, then “separating politics and economics” will turn into “politics cold, economics cold.” The critique centers solely on the Japanese “spiritual atmosphere,” and finds grounds for hope only in resistance to right-wing trends within Japan and pressure from China as well as other states. (p. 367) In this view, foreign policy is being determined by domestic politics, which, in turn, are a function of how Japan’s political thought is evolving. As Japanese thought emerged from the Cold War, the limitations on right-wing thought, which had already been lowered by pro-US and anti-communist trends, were fading. The end of the Cold War, thus, emerges as a negative factor in China’s perspective. As in discussions of the United States, the Cold War era is pictured as a time of some restraint, whereas what followed was extremist thought left unbridled. Pacifism was fading along with a correct view of history, opening the way to militarism, according to this dichotomous interpretation of how Japan has evolved and keeps evolving.

Chapter four in the book by Liu and others is a detailed analysis of media coverage. While it covers Asahi shimbun briefly, most attention centers on the Seiron column of Sankei shimbun and the journal Shokun, These are on the right-wing extreme in Japan, but the authors see them as agenda setting. They are criticized for their distortions of history and advocacy of constitutional reform. Yet, most coverage centers on their treatment of China in 1986-2008: its political situation as in 1989; the reversion of Hong Kong in 1997; the status of Taiwan, especially when leaders were pressing for its independence; China’s economy; and China’s military. The authors conclude that after the Cold War these journals made China the hypothetical enemy, reflecting the loss of the Soviet Union as the enemy. As they saw Japanese politics shift to the right, they grew more emboldened toward China. As China’s power rose, they found more reason to be hostile. In the process, they strove to change public opinion concerning China and had considerable success. There is little effort by the authors to put these journals in the broader context of Japanese media and public opinion or to explain how China’s behavior had an impact on Japan. Concluding with remarks about Abe becoming prime minister again, the authors reinforce their negative arguments about the right wing driving the policy agenda. The stress is on political thought.


A case can be made that Chinese views of Japan’s foreign policy in Asia open the best window on the prospects in the region for peace and stability, on the one hand, or tension and the threat of armed conflict on the other. Charging that Abe Shinzo is remilitarizing Japan and breaking the status quo of the regional order that has long existed, Chinese publications have justified China’s recent assertive behavior as a defensive response to Japan’s changing course. In the late 1980s Chinese warnings that Japan had unhealthy ambitions to become the regional leader as a political and military great power foretold a shift in policy, especially to Southeast Asia as well as reasserting the link between Japan’s past militarism and its current intentions.1 In the early 2000s the shift from “smile diplomacy” and then “new thinking” showing understanding of Japan and appreciation for its post-1945 choices to charges that Koizumi’s visits to the Yasukuni Shrine were linked to untoward ambitions such as containment of China and fabrication of a “China threat,” accompanied an effort to pressure Japan into Sinocentric regionalism in Northeast and Southeast Asia. Then, in 2009-2010 sweeping demonization of all dimensions of Japan’s national identity preceded an aggressive Chinese foreign policy around its borders, with only minor restraints in 2011 before it resumed. There were softer interpretations of Japan’s nature and intentions, as in the 2006-2008 thaw in relations, but they did not last.

There is no doubt that the argument that Abe is driving Japan not only to revised memories about history but also to a militarized foreign policy threatening to the rise of China has become a mainstay in Huanqiu shibao, the inflammatory paper of global renown, as well as on the Internet. Articles about Japan in many journals of an academic as well as popular nature clearly echo these sentiments and amplify alarm about the historical and cultural background of Japan’s evolution in this manner.2 At the level of broad readership the Central Propaganda Department has held sway, no matter whether theories of factionalism are confirmed or not, which argue that a group led by Zhou Yonggang and Jiang Zemin outflanked Hu Jintao using the Japan issue as convenient for making him look weak and rallying nationalist support.

I did not review widely circulated sources, but turned instead to serious academic books in search of deeper analysis that can help put popular writings in perspective. They support the conclusion that Chinese social science has little interest in realist or liberal theory. It sticks closely to constructivist theory, obsessed with national identity and its manifestations in political thought as expressed by both leaders and the national media. These writings accept a top-down view of how identity changes and public opinion is reshaped. Moreover, their simplistic framework posits a sharp dichotomy between what others would call pacifist Japan and what the Chinese see as militarist Japan. Finding Abe a useful symbol of the linkage between right-wing extremism and realist internationalism, they dispense with the latter as if it is only a byproduct of nostalgia for pre-1945 national identity. Abe serves the narrative far better than Hatoyama did in 2009. For anyone still hoping for common ground on strategic issues, finding a pathway to put historical matters aside or reach an interim agreement on certain symbols, this Chinese understanding of Japan makes clear that a realist Japan is unacceptable.

Coverage of South Korea is more ambivalent, leaving the door open to finding a way to overcome public suspicions. There is also a reluctance to acknowledge realist attitudes, as if North Korea’s behavior or China’s military rise and assertiveness are of any influence. Yet, criticism of national identity themes comes with an element of possibility that they can be overcome. Japan is no longer in play. South Korea is.

In January 2014 Chinese officials doubled down on the theme that Abe is reviving militarism. The issue is less erroneous understandings of history and more the rise of Japan as a military power bent on treating China as a threat and joining with the United States in a containment strategy. If Chinese analysts treated Japan as well as China as a realist state, then they would establish a foundation for diplomacy aimed at narrowing differences. By glorifying Chinese national identity at the same time as they demonize Japan’s national identity, they are arousing the public and making new attempts at diplomacy more difficult. Discussion in Japan of the “China threat” has, arguably, been more muted than that of Japanese “militarism” in China and is generally couched in terms of the need for dialogue to narrow differences. Given the Chinese literature on Japan, there is little sign of a similar inclination unless political change is more drastic in Japan than observers expect. Demonization is here to stay.

1. Gilbert Rozman, “China’s Changing Images of Japan 1989-2001: The Struggle to Balance Partnership and Rivalry,” International Relations of the Asia-Pacific 2, no. 1 (Winter 2002): 95-129.

2. Gilbert Rozman, ed., National Identities and Bilateral Relations: Widening Gaps in East Asia and Chinese Demonization of the United States (Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Stanford University Press, 2013), Chapter 7.