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Friday, September 23, 2011

Smells Like Teen Xenophobia: Chinese “Angry Youth” and anti-Japanese nationalism

Keqin Wei, MPA

In spite of the growing economic cooperation and cultural exchange between China and Japan in recent years, the number of “Angry Youth” in China is also rising commensurately. The phenomenon of “Angry Youth” refers to young Chinese ultra-nationalists with a visceral hatred of Japan. Since most “Angry Youth” were born after the 1980s, they did not live through the Sino-Japanese War of the 1940s, but nevertheless demonstrate much stronger anti-Japanese sentiment than former generations. Importantly, these youth are generally highly educated and children of the internet age – blogs and chat rooms are often the repository for their anti-Japanese polemics. While there are many reasons for the growing numbers of “Angry Youth,” the most salient are the censored media in China and the way history is taught to students.

“The Modern History of China” is an important course in both Chinese middle school and high school. Stereotypes aside about China’s infatuation with inculcating math and science, great efforts have been made to teach students their national history from the Opium War of the 19th century to the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Particular concentration is placed on the eight-year Sino-Japanese War in the 1930s-40s. This curriculum is also included on important exams, such as the College Entrance Exam, in order to encourage students to spend more time learning history. For most Chinese young people, having received the compulsory education, Japanese wartime atrocities are described in such vivid details that it becomes deeply ingrained in their memories. In comparison, other aspects of Japan, such as its culture, economy, and politics, are largely neglected.

Furthermore, the internet provides biased reports of modern-day Japan by amplifying its conflicts with China and reiterating tense historical issues. Just a few months ago, if one searched for “Japan” on Baidu, the most popular Chinese internet search engine, the top three news hits were: “Crisis in Fukushima,” “Japan claims its sovereignty over Diaoyu Islands,” and “Japanese history textbooks deny the Nanjing Massacre.” If it were not for the disaster in Japan, there would also very likely be articles criticizing the “basic quality” of Japanese people among the top news articles. As these “Angry Youth” spend their leisure time on the internet and browsing the websites that host such articles, this kind of information is constantly repeated, which intensifies the stereotype of Japanese brutality and hostility towards China.

Psychological research shows that people often make judgments based on accessible information. Most “Angry Youth” don’t have the opportunity to visit Japan, so the information available to them from textbooks and media is often the main resource to make their judgments. Their attitudes towards Japan are biased based on these historical memories and prejudiced news source.

Social norms also help shape people’s behavior, especially in a country like China which has a strong tradition of collectivism. As framed by former PRC president Jiang Zemin: “Forgetting the humiliating Chinese modern history means betraying your country.” In this environment, forgetting or even forgiving Japanese aggression is tantamount to treason. A second example comes from a popular Chinese movie about the Nanjing Massacre, “Nanjing, Nanjing” (2009). The Nanjing Massacre of 1937 is widely regarded as evidence of Japanese soldiers’ brutality and is still a hot topic given current Japanese leaders’ reluctance to apologize for its occupation of China. Upon the film’s release, one influential movie critic was quoted as follows: “You are not qualified to be Chinese if you do not watch this movie.” The assertion that failure to appreciate a movie about Japanese wartime brutality means losing one’s Chinese identity puts extreme pressure on those who do not plan to see the film.

While these social norms partly explain the expansion of anti-Japanese nationalism, why does the anti-Japanese sentiment in the “Angry Youth” surpass that of other age groups, including older generations who actually lived through the brutality of occupation?

One would not be surprised to find out that peer pressure plays a large role in shaping this attitude for teens. The Chinese internet, which is notorious for its censorship of sensitive political topics, has no problem with the proliferation of nationalist comments. Allowing the “Angry Youth” to be the only outspoken adolescent political group in the country gives the false impression that they are the only politically-oriented youth in China. When “Angry Youth” spread their anti-Japanese comments on internet, people their age with similar education backgrounds tend to take this movement as a reference group, and modify their own attitudes accordingly.

Nationalism proves to be an effective tool for totalitarian states to suppress dissidents and maintain social stability. To date, it seems China has been successful at stoking nationalist themes and training “Angry Youth” to vent their frustrations in politically-acceptable directions. Unfortunately, it seems that these “Angry Youth” have already begun to transform their attitudes into behaviors, as evidenced by frequent anti-Japan demonstrations that have taken place since 2004. One way to assuage the hostile attitudes towards Japan is to expand the information channels about Japan, by introducing Japanese cartoons and movies in China in order to show different aspects of the island nation; and most importantly, to revise Chinese modern history textbooks to show the Chinese people that modern Chinese history is much richer than an eight-year war with its neighbor.

Thanks to Eddie Skolnick for his comments and editing.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Well, during WW2, Singaporean Chinese were killed by the evil japanese soldiers. About 70 000 to 100000 Chinese were killed. Till now, Japanese denied the number and their students were not taught about this atrocity in Japan. Some jap mayor even denied that they never kill and said it never happen. Like the jews, we must never forget history as this is what those jap are capable of doing. Chinese must always be on their guards, like just the jewish people.