Written by Wanning Sun.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of China’s ‘War against the Japanese Invasion’. It may therefore be an opportune moment to reflect on how the politics of remembering plays out in the Chinese media. Twenty years ago, while doing research for my doctoral dissertation (which was concerned with how Japan is imagined by Chinese and Australian media), I conducted an investigation into how Japan was represented in the Chinese media in the second half of the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s. As far as official media go, I found a bifurcation of the Chinese discourse on Japan.

On one hand, Japan was represented as a special friend and cultural cousin, sharing with China many kinds of affinities – historical, cultural and linguistic. This discourse ran through the official media’s reporting on myriad activities of cultural diplomacy between the two countries. On the other hand, Japan also came across as a historical foe whose contemporary position on historical war crimes remained a source of friction between the nations in relation to a number of issues, such as Nakasone’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, and the post-war revision of Japanese history textbooks. I found that the ‘special friend’ discourse was constructed by appealing to feelings and sentiments, often in the form of extended human-interest stories. In contrast, the ‘special foe’ narrative was mostly sustained through brief, hard news items in the style of objective reporting, without much editorializing. The general conclusion I drew from this analysis was that in the 1980s and early 1990s, the Chinese government, for various reasons – the most significant being a pragmatic foreign policy and the need to secure Japanese aid and investment – played down anti-Japanese feelings, whereas they actively promoted pro-Japanese feelings.

My analysis of the narratives in the popular and technocratic-oriented media at the same time also reveals a bifurcate narrative, albeit of a different kind. To some extent the popular media in the commercialised sector catered to a nationalistic sentiment over specific incidents or issues. For instance, in 1994, a heated debate arose about the case of a Chinese ping-pong player who married a Japanese man and started representing Japan in international tournaments. Meanwhile, in specialised magazines dedicated to economics, management and technology, the discourse of ‘learning from Japan’ started to gain traction. Japan’s ‘economic miracle’ captured the Chinese imagination as well as the West’s. Hungry for Western technology yet wary of Western cultural values, China saw Japan as a possible way of bypassing Western values without missing out on the benefits of technology.

That was twenty years ago, and a lot has happened during these two decades, not just in the domestic politics of China and Japan, but also in their respective relationships with the world. ‘Soft power’ is now a buzzword in China; issues of territorial sovereignty dog China’s diplomatic relationships with some of its neighbours; the dispute over the Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands is not resolved; and ‘China’s rise’ and the ‘China threat’ discourse have become consistent themes in the international community’s reporting of China.

Given these changes, it is hardly surprising that we are now witnessing a Chinese mediasphere that is noticeably more anti-Japan across the board. A few examples may be useful to back up this general impression. The first comes from the realm of television and film. In recent years, television dramas featuring Sino-Japanese military conflict have become all the rage, and in particular, the War against the Japanese Invasion is now one of the most popular topics for television dramas (抗日剧). Hengdian Studio in Zhejiang Province, the biggest production base for Chinese television drama, has some revealing statistics. In 2012, Hengdian hosted 150 production teams, with as many as 48 of them making dramas on the theme of the Japanese war, making up 30 percent of its total production output in that year. During the same year, a person who was hired to play an extra appeared in more than 30 such drama series, and played a Japanese soldier 200 times. A more facetious figure reveals that within the space of about a month, from late January to early March in 2013, more than 10,000 Japanese soldiers were killed on screen. And since there was no political limit to how much you could condemn Japanese war criminals, some of these dramas got rather carried away, giving super powers to the Chinese soldiers and demonizing the Japanese. Some productions got into trouble with the authorities for their fanciful and implausible stories, but on the whole, productions of dramas about war against Japan are politically safe, economically viable, and can always rely on exploiting the moral resources of the spectators.

The second example is the Chinese government’s announcement of its intention to launch an all-out, coordinated campaign to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the ‘Victory against Fascism’ and the end of China’s ‘War against the Japanese Invasion’. China will stage a series of high profile events, including commemorative ceremonies, military parades, high-level receptions and gala events. A number of other countries involved in the War, as well as dignities representing the UN and other international organisations, will be invited to participate in some events. To co-ordinate with these activities and as part of the campaign, the state media are expected to play their part. For instance, along with other documentaries, Always Remember (铭记), a sixty-episode series drawing on sound archive material and interviews, will be simultaneously broadcast in 21 provinces in China.

The third example is the Chinese government’s efforts to influence the diasporic Chinese media coverage of Sino-Japanese relations. In May of this year, the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office, under the auspices of China’s State Council, hosted a series of workshops and tours for editors and media practitioners from Chinese-language media outlets outside China. One aim of these initiatives, among others, was to build more supportive and favourable public opinion among the various diasporic Chinese communities. Given that the coverage of China-Japan relations in the Western media is often felt to be unfavourable to China, the Chinese government considers diasporic Chinese media as a potential pathway towards rectifying this situation. Workshop delegates were invited to visit museums and historical sites in Shenyang, Liaoning and Heilongjiang—the first few provinces that fell under the Japanese occupation. Diasporic Chinese journalists, including those from Japan, happily pledged their allegiance to the motherland, promising to do their bit to keep alive the memory of Japan’s war crimes.

Nobody can predict what Sino-Japanese relations will be like in another 20 years’ time, but one thing is certain. For the Chinese people and the Chinese government alike, there is no country that can arouse the most intense feelings in quite the same way that Japan can. In the foreseeable future, then, Japan will mostly continue to play the role of the bad guy for the Chinese media.

Wanning Sun is Professor of Media and Communication at University of Technology Sydney. Her latest monograph is ‘Subaltern China: Rural Migrants, Media and Cultural Practices’ (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014). She is also the co-editor of a forthcoming volume ‘Media and Communication in Chinese Diaspora: Rethinking Transnationalism’ (Routledge, 2015). Image Credit: CC by Jacob Ehnmark/flickr.