Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2024.05.23

Can Japan and China bridge their ever-widening ‘perception gap’?

The complex dynamics between the two nations and their histories prevent them seeing eye to eye

The Japan times2024515日付)に掲載

International Politics/Diplomacy National Security China

I am writing this from Guangzhou, my first such trip to mainland China in nearly seven years, visiting Beijing and regions along the Pearl River, including Shenzhen and Dongguan.

My biggest takeaway from this trip is that the "perception gap" between the peoples of Japan and China seems to have widened. And perhaps due to the three-year "zero-COVID" policy, the gap may have gotten bigger than ever.

The Japanese view of China

On the political front, the Japanese view of China is worsening. A typical perception is that China is a scary country. There's a fear that even if one does nothing, they can be detained on suspicion of espionage, making travel there feel unsafe. Even I have long hesitated to visit China as many of my friends have joked that I would be detained if I went there.

On the economic front, too, China’s outward image has not improved. This is evident in various aspects: The Chinese economy has already passed its peak. While an immediate collapse is unlikely, sustained high growth is no longer feasible. The subsequent erosion of confidence in investing there is further exacerbated by concerns over economic security. Some Japanese companies have even begun to seriously consider decoupling or derisking.

The Chinese perception of Japan

The Chinese perception, however, is quite the opposite. On the political side, I heard comments there such as: "The Japanese say they are afraid of being detained, but as long as they obey China's laws, they will have no problems," "If the Japanese don't come back to China soon, they will miss the bus." "Japan is no longer a major power and why does Japan continue to rely on the now-failing U.S.? Why not side with China?" The gap on the political front seems to be widening even more than before.

The situation is the same on the economic front. For example, some cling to baseless optimism, claiming that "the Japanese economy is already dysfunctional," or that "while the current Chinese economy is not doing well, it can never be like Japan's." Additionally, many average Chinese citizens believe that, unlike Western countries, China's economy will continue to grow due to its expanding relationship with the Global South.

Where is the truth?

As far as Japan-China relations are concerned, the truth doesn't necessarily lie in the middle. The two neighbors have a long and complicated history. One is a nation that returned to democracy after 1945 and now has a free market economy, while the other is a socialist dictatorship led by the Chinese Communist Party that has controlled the state since 1949.

It is natural that there are more than two views about the state, history or legitimacy of governance. Knowing this, I venture the following thoughts:

There is a certain basis in Japan for a “fear” of China on the political front. For example, I myself visited China on official business this time, using my official passport instead of my private one. Although I had many Chinese friends in Beijing during my assignment in the early 2000s with whom I could frankly discuss international issues, I did not contact them. I do not want to put them in an unnecessary predicament by my making unnecessary contacts.

Looking back, many of these fears seem unfounded. The likelihood of ordinary Japanese citizens being suddenly detained and interrogated is not likely, unless a specific Chinese government agency suspects espionage is taking place. Perhaps due to the widespread use of surveillance camera systems with facial recognition capabilities throughout the country, I did not feel any physical surveillance or overt pressure. After all, it's not cost-effective to monitor and detain a ”nobody” like me, an ordinary citizen.

There are also a questions over China's view of Japan on the diplomatic front. Japan is not dependent on the U.S. because of our declining power. It is only because it is in Japan's national interest to respect universal values such as freedom, democracy, the rule of law, human rights, humanity and to maintain the status quo of international order. That is why Japan is cooperating with Western countries, including the United States, that share the same values. Conversely, with China, which does not share such values, there is little interest for Japan, no matter how the power of the U.S. changes.

In terms of the economy, China's perception of Japan is somewhat misguided. Ten years ago, a Chinese economist I met in Japan confidently claimed to have thoroughly studied the collapse of Japan's bubble economy and its lost decades, asserting that China wouldn't repeat the same mistakes. However, China now faces more challenging issues than Japan did, including the middle-income country trap, youth unemployment and an inadequate social security system. These challenges are compounded by a balance sheet recession resulting from the bursting of the real estate bubble.

On the other hand, Japan's view of the Chinese economy may also be overly pessimistic. For instance, during my visit to the Pearl River Delta region, I witnessed examples of the nation's manufacturing capabilities. China's BYD produces 3 million EV vehicles a year in this region, supported by a countless number of various manufacturers and industries that bolster the area's high-tech companies. This region, with its strong resemblance to manufacturing sectors in Japan, holds great potential for the emergence of numerous startup industries.

How should Japan and China narrow the perception gap between their peoples? In all honesty, there seems to be no silver bullet. The complicated history of bilateral relations, and more recently, the prolonged COVID-19 pandemic, may partly be responsible for the low level of free, nonpolitical personal exchanges or economic activity between the two nations.

That said, the more political the bilateral relationship becomes, the more important it is to take action before making comments. What is needed now is for China to decide to resume exchanges of people, including political leaders at the summit level.