China tries to patch its torn image

After weeks of anti-Japanese protest, China, Japan leaders may meet this weekend.

At the 50th commemoration of a conference that enshrined the phrase "peaceful coexistence," the leaders of China and Japan appear likely to meet, prodded by Asian neighbors' concerns over unstable relations between the two.

The current row arose swiftly, sparked both by historical animus and jockeying over future power and place in Asia - and it surprised many observers in the depth of antipathy on both sides.

Now, after three weekends of angry anti-Japanese street protests, authorities in Beijing appear to have decided that the largely student-led campaign to target Japanese businesses and diplomatic buildings may be harming China's image abroad and creating tensions in the region - and could pose a domestic challenge if sentiments among Chinese ever became unmanageable.

Chinese diplomats have refused to apologize to Tokyo for protests that have caused many Japanese to cancel vacations in China and have upset business leaders in Tokyo. But Beijing has put the word out strongly through party circles to urge quiet and enforce calm. Reportedly, no protests have taken place since a handful of students raised placards in downtown Xiamen on Monday.

In recent days, prominent authorities such as Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing have appeared on state TV, urging the People's Liberation Army and rank-and-file Communist Party cadres to trust the government's handling of the dispute, and to cease activities leading to protest. Earlier in the week, an editorial in People's Daily, the party mouthpiece, took what some analysts described as a "worried tone" - saying the time for criticism of Japan had ended, and that the time for "economic construction" and the building of a "harmonious society" was at hand.

International reaction

Moreover, since Chinese students hurled bottles at the Japanese Embassy while Chinese police stood by chatting and eating, international reaction has not gone China's way.

Beijing was certain early this winter that a European Union arms embargo against China would be lifted (a move ardently opposed by the Pentagon). But last week, the EU said it no longer had a consensus to lift. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, in a frank interview with German media, even mentioned a possible need for a form of containment of China, until its social, political, and military direction became clearer.

Now, with a historic anniversary meeting in Jakarta, Indonesia, of nonaligned nations, designed to affirm closer ties between Asia and Africa, Chinese officials are on the spot to calm the waters. In recent days, Tokyo has repeatedly pushed for an informal summit on the sidelines.

Should Chinese President Hu Jintao not meet with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, China would appear to be intractable or petulant in refusing to address a problem roiling Asia and threatening commercial and cultural exchange, analysts say. The dispute could also affect the internal dynamics of the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program if it is not defused.

On Wednesday, pressure on Beijing was ratcheted up further when a group of Asian foreign ministers, as well as UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, urged the two sides to talk. At a minimum, experts say, allowing conditions between Japan and China to fester in Jakarta would spoil the meeting.

"How do you hold an important international meeting on ways to promote Asian-African dialogue if China and Japan aren't talking and relations are tense?" asks a foreign diplomat in Beijing. "Can Africa be engaged in a discourse on Asia's economic success if all this clash is taking place? You've got [Pakistan President Pervez] Musharraf hugging [Indian Prime Minister] Manmohan Singh, but Japan and China can't talk?"

Power politics at play

Protests in a half-dozen Chinese cities are partly attributed to a series of Japanese history textbooks, approved by Tokyo early this month, that Korean and Chinese scholars say whitewash Japanese aggression and brutality in World War II.

Yet such texts have been available for decades. Asian observers say the real issue is Asian power politics between the ancient rivals, especially Japan's bid to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Discussion of UN reform, including a council expansion, is to begin this summer.

Public protests in urban China are rare. Spontaneous political protests involving attacks on the diplomatic quarters of other states are even rarer in Beijing, where police authority is very strong - one reason some observers say the protests were not uncalculated. Indeed, they followed a three-month Internet referendum in China against Japan's inclusion on the Security Council, that got 25 million votes.

Anti-Japanese feeling runs deeply in China at a popular level. Japanese lawmakers fueled that sentiment this week by announcing that they would visit Tokyo's Yasukuni shrine, where a number of war criminals are memorialized. And the Tokyo High Court on Tuesday upheld a lower court ruling barring foreign citizens from seeking compensation from the government for wartime actions. The plaintiffs had demanded compensation for suffering caused by biological experiments as well as Japan's brutal occupation of Nanjing.

In Xiamen this week, a graduate student who has traveled and studied abroad, spoke admiringly of a professor who, in his view, summed up the "bottom line" about Japan for his international studies class: "My professor is quite wise. He taught us that Japan is either about to attack China, or is getting ready to attack China. We just can't trust [Japan.]"

Supporters of Tokyo, however, point to Mr. Koizumi's decision to attend a conference in Moscow next month as part of ceremonies marking the end of World War II. The meeting will explore the fascism that led to the war - and is likely to dwell at length on critiques of midcentury Germany and Japan.

While the Japanese were balking at high-level diplomatic contact with the Russians until their dispute over the Kurile Islands could be resolved, they now appear more willing to expose themselves to tougher scrutiny of the past.

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