x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

China's official sympathy for Japan's woes undermined by bloggers' glee

Although China sent a 15-man search and recovery team to its earthquake-struck neighbour, and the majority of Chinese who have posted comments on blogs have voiced sympathy for Japan, a vocal minority has expressed unbridled glee at the country's misfortune.

Members of the Chinese International Search and Rescue Team carry a victim's body in the quake-shaken city of Ofunato, Japan.
Members of the Chinese International Search and Rescue Team carry a victim's body in the quake-shaken city of Ofunato, Japan.

BEIJING // When news broke in China last Friday that an earthquake measuring a magnitude of 9.0 had hit its former enemy and occupier, Japan, the Chinese government's reaction was dignified and neighbourly.

The Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, called his Japanese counterpart, Naoto Kan, to offer condolences and Liang Guanglie, the Chinese defence minister, offered the use of Chinese military to help in the aftermath.

In a historic first, China sent a 15-man search and recovery team to the stricken archipelago and, on Monday, the country's commerce ministry pledged $4.6 million (Dh16.9m) in emergency aid. The foreign ministry later said it would give more if required.

Despite long-standing disagreements over a host of territorial, historic, military and economic issues which mean the relations between the two Asian neighbours are often tense, China's official line has been consistent: we sympathise and we are here to help.

But reactions among ordinary Chinese have been deeply divided and many - especially those in China's vibrant microblogging community - are debating what the appropriate personal and national response to Japan's devastating earthquake and tsunami should be.

At the heart of the debate is a feeling held by many Chinese that Japan has never sufficiently atoned for the atrocities it committed when it invaded and occupied China during the 1930s and 1940s.

Although the majority of Chinese who have posted comments on blogs and in chat rooms have voiced sympathy for Japan, a vocal minority have expressed unbridled glee at the country's misfortune.

"YAYAYAYAYAYA," one blogger, using the handle Ga Erhan, posted on Sina Weibo, China's largest microblogging website, last Friday. "An earthquake is happening in Japan! Great! Karma … Karma.! Let the tsunami and earthquake be stronger!"

Another user commenting under the name Ya Jiaxi, said: "Let Japan have an earthquake! I don't sympathise with them! Little Japan invaded our motherland and slaughtered Chinese people!"

Even among those saddened by the huge loss of life and large-scale destruction, many still point out the anger they still feel towards Japan.

A poll of Sina Weibo users found that the largest segment - 44 per cent - felt that the statement "I respect lives, but won't forget history" best expressed their feelings about the disaster.

"I wish the best to every single kind-hearted Japanese citizen, but I don't like to watch the ugly behaviour of Japanese politicians (may those beasts quickly die off)," wrote one user commenting on images of the tsunami posted on the popular video-sharing site Tudou.

In the past, Japanese politicians have caused outrage in China by visiting Tokyo's Yasukuni shrine, which honours, among others, imperial troops who died fighting the Chinese.

Since the disaster, Chinese news sites - some of them state-owned - have carried editorials denouncing "gloating" as unpatriotic and uncivilised, and reminding people that Japan gave generously in 2008 when Sichuan was struck by a massive earthquake that killed almost 70,000 people.

Other bloggers, however, have been more forthright.

"What's an earthquake got to do with patriotism? Just because Japan once invaded China; so the earthquake happened, there is a karma?" a Sina Weibo user named Nuan Xiaotuan in Harbin asked.

"This is not patriotism but brain dead! brain dead! Don't [expletive] embarrass yourself and shut up!"

But as well as sparking a letting of nationalistic sentiment, coverage of Japan's earthquake has also prompted some to reflect, often unfavourably, on China's ability to handle a crisis of similar magnitude.

Photos of Japanese schools being used as post-disaster shelters and children donning protective foam hoods have drawn comparisons with the Sichuan earthquake, when thousands of children were killed after their shoddily constructed school buildings collapsed on them.

"The China Earthquake Network Centre said it is equivalent to more than 20 times the earthquake [that] happened in Wenchuan. The official death toll in Wenchuan earthquake is 70,000 people, what about Japan? Schools in Japan work as a shelter, while schools in China are places where suffering occurs," wrote a Sina blogger called Zhou Xiaoyun.

Others marvelled at the orderliness of Japanese citizens and the transparency of its government.

In response to criticism that the Chinese media was giving more coverage to the Japanese earthquake than an earthquake in Yingjiang in Yunnan province that happened one day earlier, a Chinese journalist with Jiangxi TV blogged: "Japanese foreign affairs department is giving the green light to foreign reporters who apply for a visa, while police in Yingjiang told domestic reporters from elsewhere not to get any closer to the county government. Friends, it is really not that our media don't care about Yingjiang."

Another comment from a Chinese person in Tokyo that has been reposted almost 36,000 times on Sina, describes the scene in a public square where hundreds of people congregated during the earthquake: "During the entire period, not a single person smoked. Helpers ran about to provide blankets, hot water, cookies. All men helped women by going back to the building to get things for them. They got electricity supply and plugged in the radio. Three hours later, people left. Damn. There was not a scrap of trash. Not even one!"

foreign.desk@thenational.ae