On May 8, Japan’s government lodged a “strong protest” with the Chinese government over an article that had run in the People’s Daily in which two academics questioned the basis of Japan’s sovereignty over the Lewchew 琉球 (in Japanese, Ryukyu) islands. The Chinese side of course rejected the protest, and opinion columnists the world over have been weighing in. The current press furor has produced exciting developments in Lewchew’s main island of Okinawa, where in May 15 two professors have founded the “Association of Comprehensive Studies for Independence of Lew Chewans”. Already, there exists in Lewchew rising tensions between natives and nationalist Japanese, a latent history of cultural and linguistic abuse of Lewchewans, and a culture of protest upon which independence campaigners can piggyback. The only missing ingredient in this karmic tinderbox of anti-Japanese sentiment is international diplomatic support for Lewchewan separatists, which does not seem to be forthcoming from China. The Wall Street Journal soberly notes that “individual commentaries”, such as those in the People’s Daily, “don’t necessarily reflect the views of top political leaders, and Beijing officials on Wednesday gave little indication that the commentary represents a potential shift in policy.”
So if the Lewchew independence issue is some grand scheme by China’s government to advance its claim in the simmering Diaoyu Islands dispute, then the strategy is not very effective, because the direct connection between the Lewchew and Diaoyu issues is not obvious. It is more likely, as foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying says, that “The article by Chinese scholars reflects the attention paid by the Chinese public and academics toward the Diaoyu Islands and their history” [emphasis added]. Hua might have better referred to the “history surrounding” the Diaoyus, or the history of Japanese imperialism, since China’s official position is that the Diaoyu Islands are not part of the Lewchew chain. Indeed, the relevant bit of 19th-century history is not disputed between Tokyo, Beijing, or Taibei: While the Empire of Japan annexed the independent Lewchew Kingdom in 1879 to create Okinawa Prefecture, the Empire only annexed the Diaoyu Islands to Okinawa 16 years later, in 1895. For a nation with a historical memory past 100 years, this distinction between Lewchew and Diaoyu is as clear as day.
The raw nerve that connects this historical issue to Sino-Japanese relations today is a treaty from 1895, in which China’s last dynasty relinquished claims to the Lewchews under duress, after losing a war with the island nation that marked the beginning of imperial Japan’s long and bloody march across Asia. The contrast between the Chinese press’s frame of a rapacious and remilitarizing Japan and the Western press’s frame of an aggressive and rising China account for much of the perception gap between the respective publics. Here, China’s Leninist form of government is not to blame: similar claims by Japan on South Korean-administered islands have driven some citizens of that peninsular democracy to cut off their own fingers and decapitate birds in anxious ceremonies to ward off the ghost of Japanese rape and occupation of their land. The decades-old crimes of the Japanese Empire remain relevant in East Asia not only because of lingering territorial disputes, but also because of insincere apologies, revisionist statements, and a lack of compensation and recognition to the many victims of Japanese enslavement, torture, and genocide. All of these unresolved historical issues remain open to Japan as “confidence-building measures” towards resolving its disputes with neighbors, if Tokyo will take them.
On the other hand, if Lewchew succeeds to secede from Japan, then international law and precedent will dictate that independent Lewchew keep its current (Okinawa Prefecture’s) boundaries, which currently encompass the Diaoyu chain. Ukraine, by analogy, kept control of the originally Russian Crimean peninsula after separating from the Soviet Union in 1991, giving greater international consequence to then-minor border adjustments made while both Russia and Ukraine were Soviet Socialist Republics. However, the independence of Lewchew would still serve China’s interests, since the newly-minted country is much more likely to peacefully negotiate its territorial disputes than is the right-wing government in “Yamato”. 17 out of the 23 territorial disputes between China and its neighbors since 1949 have already been settled; most often through China peacefully giving up claims to 50% or more of the disputed territory. The most violent or intractable disputes, M. Taylor Fravel notes, involve China’s “most militarily capable neighbors” like Japan, with which China cannot “negotiate from a position of strength.”
China’s strength, it is often remarked, comes from its many and clever people. If the tyrannical government in Beijing would just release its death grip over the naturally industrious Chinese – or so the free-market fantasy goes – then the country would soon achieve first-world standards of prestige and prosperity. For Western policymakers, there’s a delicious dilemma here between trying to increase the amount of “free speech” in China across-the-board, as is the avowed policy of the US and other liberal democracies, and trying to suppress nationalist voices in the Chinese press. It is only in rare moments like these, when the engineers in Zhongnanhai ever-so-slightly lift a finger off the censorship apparatus to unleash a torrent of righteous anti-Japanese fury, that elites in Tokyo and Washington realize how much their interests lie in stemming Chinese “people power”. Anti-communist contenders for China’s soul like the Falun Gong movement are ready to pounce at the opportunity of relaxed censorship to re-open historical controversies over the cession of historical Chinese land. “Unrealistic” or revived claims to territory can quickly surface to trouble diplomatic waters, as China has painfully found in the South China Sea.
As for the obvious repartee that Beijing’s support for freedom-loving Lewchewans might embolden splittists on its own soil, the People’s Daily is naive to say that “As long as significant economic and social setbacks do not take place in the country, the threat of separatism [in China] is set to diminish.” Short of ethnic cleansing, no government has found a reproducible formula for permanently neutralizing the threat of ethnic separatism on its soil. Guarantees of cultural and linguistic rights, as are often redundantly proposed for China’s Tibetans, have proven no panacea for the fiercely-independent and ever-more-demanding Quebecois. As for civil liberties, the Scots, who are due for an independence referendum in 2014, enjoy not only the fabled “rights of Englishmen”, but also even some rights denied to Englishmen, like free university education. Separatism exists within that fuzzy realm of beliefs and feelings, rather than facts and rights, and the success of separatist movements is highly related to the openings and opportunities provided by the great powers towards dismantling their rivals.
For good or for ill, playing with separatists is part of modern-day adversarial statecraft. American arms and training in guerrilla warfare sustained Tibetan separatist rebels during the 1958-64 troubles, with consequences for China that last to this day. Less than five years ago, in 2009, Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party and National Press Club hosted Xinjiang-independence media darling Rebiya Kadeer to advise its politicians. In 2012, Kadeer’s terrorist-sympathizing diasporic nationalist organization held its annual convention in Japan, while taking part in the time-honored reactionary Japanese ritual of honoring World War II war criminals at Yasukuni Shrine. The world’s most famous ethnic separatist, the Dalai Lama, has visited Japan with permission in 2009, 2011, and 2012, where he has most recently attacked the Chinese government’s approach to domestic unrest and used the Japanese name for the disputed Diaoyu island chain, “Senkaku”. Clearly, these power games are not simply about “freedom” for anybody: be they the Tibetans, the Lewchewans, or the Kurds.
China could now only grant any sort of recognition to Lewchewan separatists at enormous diplomatic risk to itself. But a groundswell of support from citizens and netizens would provide the Chinese government with the cover it needs to take more “moral” stances against foreign instigators of domestic unrest, like to support Kurdish freedom-fighters and to recognize the Turkish-perpetrated Armenian genocide. Most Americans and Britons who have an opinion about it think that Tibet should be independent from China, and in the US, “Tibet support” among Senators is not only bipartisan, it is unanimous. As a result, strategists for the Bush White House pushed the President to give the Lama diplomatic accolades in 2007 in order to avoid being seen as “appeasing” China (note the Nazi terminology). It’s a rare conversation with an informed China-basher that Tibet and Xinjiang do not appear as Exhibit A of the inhumanity of the Chinese. The time has come to turn the tables, and to shout at every opportunity, and just as arrogantly: Free Lewchew! The hearts of Chinese everywhere are with you!
[James Carroll is currently a guest contributor to Hidden Harmonies.]