China and the World

Fallen leader

The reaction in China to Abe’s death


Abe: assassinated last Friday

“One thing did strike my attention that this is the first use of a weapon to murder someone in Japan [this year],” noted Joe Biden in his response to the death of Japan’s former prime minister Abe Shinzo last week (“I think we have 3,000 thus far,” he added, making a political point about gun violence in the US).

That said, political violence in Japan is not unheard of. Iccho Itoh, the then mayor of Nagasaki, was fatally shot in 2007. Chinese commentators were also quick to point out that at least five Japanese prime ministers have been killed or injured in assassination attempts – including Abe’s grandfather Kishi Nobusuke, who was stabbed in the thigh in 1960.

Many of these attacks were influential in shaping the course of Japan’s modern history. As such, Chinese social media has been buzzing with all sorts of discussions and conspiracies on the future of the Sino-Japanese relationship after Abe’s death too. Indeed, many went as far as to celebrate his murder.

Obviously this was not the most sensitive response at a time when Japan’s allies have been mourning the killing of the country’s longest-serving leader. But something similar happened in 2011 when Japan was hit by a catastrophic tsunami. While some Chinese extended their condolences to the victims of the tsunami, many others offered a “warm welcome” to the disaster that had befallen their neighbour.

This week, one of the hot topics on social media has been whether the Chinese people should be toasting the death of Abe who, since first taking office in 2012, had often been blamed by Beijing for the continued deterioration in Sino-Japanese relations.

For instance, he was the first Japanese leader in recent memory to visit the Yasukuni Shrine, which honours Japan’s war dead, including 14 Class-A war criminals.

His grandfather Kishi was also a key figure in Japan’s occupation of Manchuria in China’s northeast, an action that served as the springboard for Japan’s full-scale invasion shortly afterwards.

“What I regret is that the assassination didn’t happen yesterday,” said one commentator on weibo, referring to the July 7 anniversary of the Lugou Bridge Incident in 1937, which triggered the fuller Japanese invasion of China (Abe was shot on July 8).

Nor had Abe endeared himself to the Chinese public with remarks last year that “a Taiwan contingency is a contingency for Japan”.

“In other words, it is also a contingency for the Japan-US alliance. People in Beijing, particularly President Xi Jinping, should not misjudge that,” Abe warned.

His video call with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen in March prompted brought a stern rebuke from China’s foreign ministry which blasted Japan for its time as a colonial power. Japan committed “innumerable crimes in Taiwan and therefore shoulders grave, historical crimes and debt to Chinese people,” the ministry insisted.

Reportedly Abe was planning a visit to the self-ruling island later this year. When his grandfather served as prime minister, he also lobbied to include Taiwan in Japan’s Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security with the US (which resulted in overwhelming protests in Japan and subsequently the ousting of his cabinet).

“The influence of Abe’s family is based on their war crimes against China. I am not a politician who needs to care for diplomatic protocols. So you are saying I can’t even toast Abe’s death on social media?” another contributor bristled in one of the most ‘liked’ articles on Zhihu, China’s most popular online question-and-answer platform. Nevertheless, government spokespeople in Beijing have been trying to downplay the celebratory mood in sections of Chinese social media over Abe’s death. “I won’t comment on the remarks of the net users,” a spokesman for the foreign ministry said when asked about some of the reaction to the murder, adding that the “unexpected incident” shouldn’t be linked to bilateral relations between governments.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, meanwhile, expressed his condolences over Abe’s death to the former leader’s relatives, as well as to current prime minister Kishida Fumio, Xinhua news agency said.

For more on this topic and for details of more specific weibo comments, see the latest ‘China in five minutes’ newsletter by WiC’s Editor Steven Irvine. Click here to read.



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