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Asian nations should beware of 'riot' in patriotism

Publication Date : 18-09-2012


Nationalism and protectionism are two of the most attractive qualities during dire economic times. European far-right political parties enjoyed widespread electoral success in the wake of the eurozone debt crisis.

Even in a country in need of focus and economic revival such as the post-lost decade, post-financial crisis and post-March 11 earthquake Japan, long-term nationalist firebrand Shintaro Ishihara mustered enough support to force the government to distract itself from economic reform and tackle a half-century-old territory dispute.

So it is not surprising to see populist and nationalistic demonstrations mushrooming across the world. In Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Sudan, Tunisia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, protesters are rallying against the US over an American-made anti-Muslim “movie”.

Despite the amateurism of the video and the fact that it was made not by any US government-sanctioned organisation (in fact one of the film's reported makers was later questioned by US police partially due to an earlier fraud conviction), protesters are targeting US embassies.

Demonstrators in Sudan were even urged to rally outside the German Embassy over the US-made video. Violence that took place during one rally resulted in the death of four US diplomatic personnel in Libya, including the ambassador to the North African country.

In cities across China, angry protesters rallied against the Japanese government's decision to “nationalise” the Diaoyutai Island by purchasing them from those believed by the Japanese to own them.

The Japanese central government was forced to act after Ishihara launched a successful fundraising campaign to purchase the islands and build a shelter for vessels using the Tokyo local government's private fund. Japan's nationalisation plan is aimed at stopping Ishihara's plan to escalate tension, but Chinese nationalists, of course, are not interested in the nuance of Japanese politics. Tens of thousands of patriotic protesters gathered outside Japanese embassies and consulates across mainland China, yelling anti-Japanese slogans and calling for the boycott of all Japanese goods and foods.

Sometimes, however, protesters are not at all concerned about facts, and the line between patriotic rallies and riots can become thin, or vanish altogether. Taiwan's Central News Agency (CNA) reported yesterday that some protesters in Beijing included Master Kong in the list of “Japanese goods” despite the fact that the instant noodle company is based in Taiwan. CNA also reported that a Japanese-style BBQ restaurant co-owned by a mainland Chinese person and his Taiwanese partner became the target of so-called protests in which “rioters asked to eat for free there and ransacked it in an anti-Japanese protest.”

Nationalism and populism are attractive during hard times because they give some people a scapegoat to blame the bad times on, such as European far-right parties blaming immigrants for the eurozone debt woes. It also gives some the chance to vent their anger. Thanks to his high-profile Diaoyutais purchase plan, Ishihara is currently enjoying large popular support — something that is expected to help his son Nobuteru Ishihara's chances in the election for Liberal Democratic Party head later this month. If he wins, Nobuteru has a real chance of becoming Japan's next prime minister.

The problem with nationalism is, of course, that it is dangerous and solves nothing. Rife nationalism during an economic downturn led to the rise of the Nazis in Germany. As the anniversary of the September 18 Incident, which marked the beginning of the Japanese invasion of China in WWII, comes this Tuesday, and with yesterday's death of Japan's ambassador-designate to mainland China, Shinichi Nishimiya, Beijing and Tokyo are facing real dangers of a major escalation in diplomatic disputes and even fatal riots in China.

While some Diaoyutai activists in Taiwan are criticising the government's moderate approach in the sovereignty row as lacking in courage, Taipei is taking the mature route.

Its proposal of a peace initiative presents one of the rare moments when a government actually tries to resolve a territorial issue, not just to exploit it. Taipei's pragmatism is perhaps based more on its limited international clout than wisdom or political courage, but that does not make irrational nationalism, or boycotting paying at locally owned Japanese-themed businesses, a better approach.


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