The China Threat Thesis and Bilateral Relations

As Northeast Asia changes, China’s rise and seemingly assertive pursuit of regional interests unsettle the neighbouring states, not least Japan. Growing unease at the implications is reflected in the current discourse, which is often characterized by sinophobia, the ‘China Threat’ thesis (Chugoku kyoi) and by the perceived image of an increasingly aggressive China.[1] There is thus a clear correlation between a progressively negative image of China and the increased risk perception relating to the consumption of Chinese food imports.

In Japan, sentiment towards China has hardened since the late 1990s due primarily to a range of historical and security issues. Since the mid- 2000s, the idea that China represents a serious threat to Japan, economically and militarily, has gained currency to the extent that it now seems conventional wisdom - this has had major implications for bilateral relations and mutual public opinion and understanding.[2]

An article in AERA in September 2007 (even before the notorious gyoza incident had taken place) entitled ‘The origin of our China-hate. It all started with poisoned foods!’[3] clearly demonstrates the easy link between food safety issues and China’s domestic political situation or bilateral relations. As mentioned above, the deliberate aspect of many of the food incidents highlights both moral and ethical characteristics of the Other, which render the fear even more palpable to the public. As my informants stated, ‘The anti-Japaneseness [of the Chinese] and [their] morals are low, so I can’t trust them’ (Female, 20-30 years old), or ‘Talking about China; there are food problems even up till now, there are structural cover-ups by the government, ... You cannot trust them at all’ (Male, plus 60 years).

The China Threat thus fits within broader negative perceptions of China as a country with bad hygienic standards, heavily polluted cities, a corrupt government, and poor working conditions.[4] A 2011 Japan-China Joint Opinion Poll by the Non-Profit Organization (NPO) Genron revealed that for those respondents who stated that they felt ‘no affinity to China’, the second reason (61.8%) for this is the doubts they have towards the Chinese government’s dealings with food safety issues.[5] In the latest version of the poll in 2014, the second reason was the fact that ‘China’s actions to secure resource, energy and food look selfish’ (52.8%). The first reason given for the lack of affinity towards China is, unsurprisingly and throughout the years, the territorial and historical disputes between both countries. Along those same lines, the acceptance of the China Threat narrative among the Japanese people can also be seen in the annual increase in the number of respondents mentioning ‘China’s military buildup and non-transparency’ as a matter of concern.[6]

As early as 1992, the link between a China threat and food matters was made in the Mainichi Shimbun. However, at that time it concerned Chinese agricultural exports to Korea, and no food safety concerns were mentioned; it was rather presented as an economic threat to a neighbouring country that should be closely watched (Mainichi Shimbun, September 29, 1992).[7] The first link with Japan appeared in 2002, when excessive pesticide residues were found on vegetables imported from China. However, it was not until 2007 that the expressions shoku no Chugoku kyoi-ron or Chugoku shokuhin no kyoi-ron (the Chinese food threat thesis) became more commonly used in the media, often linked with the upcoming Olympic Games in Beijing (Mainichi Shimbun, August 20, 2007).[8]

  • [1] Hook, et al., Regional Risk, 19—24.
  • [2] Cabinet Office, ‘Gaiko ni kansuru seronchosa’. The poll, which conducts a similar survey butreflecting both the Chinese and the Japanese side, published its results for 2015 at the time ofwriting. These figures show a slight improvement in affinity on both sides.
  • [3] Onami and Kawano. ‘Chugoku kirai no honshin.’
  • [4] Iwabuchi, ‘China, Japan’s Chimera’, 152-153.
  • [5] Genron NPO, ‘Dai nanakai Nicchu kyodo yoron chosa’.
  • [6] For the year 2014, this was 39.2%, as compared to the 31.2% of 2013. Genron NPO, ‘11thJapan-China Joint Opinion Poll Analysis Report’.
  • [7] ‘Kankoku ni Chugoku kyoi ron, nosanbutsu no yunyu, kyugekini zoka’ [China threat to SouthKorea as imports of agricultural products rapidly increase], Mainichi Shimbun, September 29, 1992.
  • [8] ‘Sekai wa do miru: Chugoku seihin no anzensei mondai’ [How does the world look at it: safetyproblems with Chinese goods], Mainichi Shimbun, August 20, 2007.
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