Behind the often raucous chatter on the Chinese Internet, a steady drumbeat of anti-Japanese sentiment has long provided insight into one of the strongest currents of local public opinion.
Now, that has changed. In the wake of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear emergency that struck Japan on March 11, the public mood here has shifted dramatically. If that lasts, say some observers, it could boost chances for a deeper rapprochement between the traditional rivals.
"The tone online has changed from cursing the Japanese people and government to expressing sympathy and support," says Zhou Yongsheng, a Japan expert at the China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing. "I am really surprised."
The change was not immediate. Initial reactions reflected the standard, sometimes brutal, views that Chinese commonly express toward Japan.
"I hope this happens to you on the same day every year," wrote one anonymous commentator on Mop.com, which hosts one of China's most popular chat rooms. "This is a great birthday present," wrote another.
Humane response to an old foe
Soon, however, such posts were vastly outnumbered by more humane reactions. "I have to say that I admire the Japanese people's quality and spirit," wrote a netizen in Shanghai who calls himself Jiaoyueyouyou on another leading portal, Sina.com.
Sina.com has received more than 2,788,000 clicks recently on an icon on its site reading "Pray for the Japanese in the disaster zone."
That seemed more representative of ordinary Chinese citizens. In an online poll by Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV, 73 percent of 1.8 million responses were positive. Some said they were surprised by the Japanese people's disciplined response to the disaster. Others admired the relatively low casualty rate or the Japanese government's quick response.
Those in favor of sending aid outnumbered those opposing it by more than 2 to 1.
Four days before the earthquake, a different story
This was in striking contrast to the opinions culled by World Public Opinion, a Washington-based international polling agency, in a survey released four days before the earthquake and tsunami. That poll found 71 percent of Chinese holding negative views of Japan.
Reasons for that are not hard to find. Resentment at Japan's brutal occupation of China between 1931 and 1945, and the war that claimed 20 million lives, still boils in many Chinese hearts. The sentiment is further embittered by a sense that Tokyo has never fully apologized for its atrocities.
"We are constantly reminded of wartime sufferings at the hands of Japanese invaders," wrote Raymond Zhou, a political commentator, in the state-run China Daily newspaper. TV dramas that flood the airwaves and graphic anti-Japan school textbooks keep the old wounds open.
The widely felt hostility to Japan was further stoked by state media's handling of Tokyo's detention last September of a Chinese fishing crew near a disputed group of islands in the East China Sea.
After the disaster, though, Chinese President Hu Jintao visited the Japanese Embassy here to express his condolences and Premier Wen Jiabao also offered his sympathy. China sent the first rescue team to Japan's northeast coast, along with emergency supplies and fuel, and ordinary citizens donated millions of dollars.
The official Chinese media reported on the crisis with unusual empathy. Many papers devoted extensive space to the story of a Japanese fisheries executive who led 20 young Chinese trainees to safety after the earthquake before dying in the tsunami as he sought his wife and child.
This sort of coverage offered new perspectives for most Chinese readers on Japanese dignity, orderliness, and determination in the face of adversity. They resonated with special force in the light of the earthquake that struck Sichuan in southwest China in 2008, leaving 87,000 dead or missing.
"Even hatreds, complaints, and conflicts pale into insignificance in the face of huge human disaster," wrote an editorialist in the China Youth Daily, published by the ruling Communist Party. "History cannot be forgotten, but it might be forgiven."
What it means
All this "provides a good foundation for a better direction in Chinese-Japanese relations," says Professor Zhou. But political realities have not gone away, he points out: Tokyo and Beijing are still at loggerheads over sovereignty disputes in the East China Sea concerning islands and an oil and gas field.
The Japanese government blasted China on Monday for sending a helicopter to buzz a Japanese military vessel near the oil field, where a Chinese company says it has already started pumping in the absence of any agreement with Japan over exploitation.
"It is extremely deplorable that the approach was perpetrated in a period like this," Japan's state secretary for foreign affairs, Yutaka Banno, told reporters in Tokyo.
Japanese press coverage of the incident was one-sided, complains Zhou. "If China's positive attitude and help is not reciprocated, future relations are uncertain," he warns. "Maybe there will be less focus on history from now on, but it will not completely disappear."