x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

China's poor want a hard line on Japan

Blue-collar workers lead protests over disputed islands in the East China Sea while the middle class prove less nationalistic.

BEIJING // Anti-Japan protests across China this week revealed a rift between a newly emerging middle class and the blue-collar workers who formed the backbone of the demonstrations, analysts say.

The unrest was sparked by a Japanese government move to buy several disputed East China Sea islands, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.

In Beijing where one in three of the city's 19.6 million are not native to the city, protesters hurled water bottles at the Japanese embassy, shouted obscenities and unfurled banners depicting the Japanese as pigs. While the working class was at the centre of the protests, the middle class was largely absent.

Could it be the visible start of an internal Chinese cultural war?

"A lot of people have been quite upset by the brutishness of the slogans. It's causing a lot of well-educated Chinese to question this," said Duncan Clark, a Briton who has lived in China for 18 years and is a media commentator on the country.

The less nationalistic approach of some of China's middle class is "a sign China is growing up", reflecting the rapid economic and societal changes of recent years, said Mr Clark.

"You feel more of a split in society developing. It's good in one way there's plurality."

While many of China's workers live a challenging existence on modest wages, toiling for long hours and living in spartan and crowded accommodation, for the middle class, life can be very different. Many have studied overseas, travel abroad for holidays and drive German luxury cars.

This new middle class is "not so concerned about nationalism", according to Chen Xin, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

"They're just concerned about their salary, their job, their house and their development," he said.

"They're quite open. They buy Japanese cars, they travel around the world, they work for foreign companies and they buy international brands … they don't think the identity of China is so important."

Even a small survey of Beijing residents suggests a divide between professionals who believe the islands issue should not be allowed to harm bilateral relations, and migrant workers who oppose a moderate approach and link the issue to a wider set of concerns.

"The white-collar people are more rational and see the problem in another perspective. I think the blue-collar class is more aggressive," said Qu Qing, 29, an investment banker.

"I think of myself as quite rational about this. After all, China has stayed in peace for nearly 60 years and it's better to keep it that way."

Fallout from the unrest lingers. Japanese companies such as Canon, Nissan and Toyota are likely to see profits in China fall.

They closed plants when anger turned into violence in some areas, with supermarkets and factories damaged.

Bilateral trade, valued at US$342.9 billion (Dh1.26 trillion) last year, is also likely to be affected, with the Chinese commerce ministry warning this week it would suffer.

In contrast to the views of many middle-class Chinese, Li Bo, 40, a Beijing-based migrant worker from Anhui province in the east of the country, said: "China should take military action."

"They should be bolder to defeat the Japanese," he said.

A similar view is taken by Liu Qian, 30, who hands out flyers for businesses in south-east Beijing.

"China has always been bullied," he said. "If you're too kind you're the target of bullying."

Blue-collar workers are, Mr Chen said, more concerned than the middle class with the divide between rich and poor, and, in terms of international affairs, feel their prospects are harmed by trade protectionism and the appreciation of the Chinese yuan against the dollar.

Many feel the United States sides with Japan on issues as part of a policy to contain China. Domestically, Mr Chen said high levels of inequality were a key concern.

Some protesters carried portraits of the former leader Mao Zedong, during whose time China was a more closed but egalitarian society where those seen as bourgeois were targeted.

"The common people want more and more to recall Mao's policies and Mao's time," said Mr Chen.

"They're more and more nationalistic because they think the American containment policy and trade protectionism will have great impact on their future jobs and income. They're not satisfied with the reality. This event is one channel for them to show their dissatisfaction."

Among those advocating a more assertive approach is Mr Sun, 55, a restaurant worker who gave only his surname. He lamented there was "no Putin in Beijing".

"China is too corrupt and too soft," he said.

dbardsley@thenational.ae

twitterFollow The National on @TheNationalUAE & Daniel Bardsley on @DanielBardsley1