Economic malaise reveals itself behind a global surge in nationalist violence

ONE of the most extraordinary images of the week was a display of militarised toothpaste tubes at a Nanjing supermarket. Beneath the Chinese flag, the green boxes were artfully arranged into the shape of an artillery gun, with an uncompromising slogan – “The Daioyu islands belong to China!” – between its wheels. The combination of everyday setting and violent sentiment did not seem rare, as the dispute over the islands, also known as Senkaku, swelled in China. Smiling employees at a car dealership held up a banner saying: “We will kill every Japanese person even if it means deaths for our own.” Japanese shops were attacked, Japanese cars were burned on the streets and major firms, including Canon and Panasonic, were forced to suspend operations on the Chinese mainland.

Taken alongside the surge of attacks on US embassies around the world, it makes the world seem suddenly more fragile. When fanaticism, nationalist or otherwise, erupts, it presents a face monstrously implacable to reason. Suddenly, the safest of places become danger zones. A mental shutter has crashed down before we know it, cutting off the possibility of dialogue, isolating an “us” that is now determined to destroy “them” at any cost.

Yet Winston Churchill, in his book on Kitchener’s campaign in the Sudan, The River War, observes that fanaticism is best understood as a weapon, not a cause itself. He writes:

“[A]lthough the force of fanatical passion is far greater than that exerted by any philosophical belief, its sanction is just the same. It gives men something which they think is sublime to fight for, and this serves them as an excuse for wars which it is desirable to begin for totally different reasons.”

In other words, the ripe horror of fanaticism may be compelling to look at, but it is also a distraction from tracing the seeds that grew the violence. Once frenzy is unleashed, those involved are lost to reason. But at least anyone lucky enough to be no more than an outside observer can resist the sort of binary thinking that wants simply to see the perpetrators as not quite human.

So in China and Japan, we need to look beyond the longstanding legal morass over who has title to Senkaku/Diaoyu and think: why now? Japan’s long economic malaise, apparent in the Bank of Japan’s latest round of money printing this week, leaves it vulnerable. China’s own faltering economy creates its own motivations, made more pressing by an imminent leadership handover, while its authoritarian government has unusual power to direct popular protest to its own ends. Meanwhile a distracted, debt-ridden US finds its willingness to keep the peace tested.

Beneath a furious argument over a few uninhabited specks on the map, great powers under economic stress are playing a dangerous game. Even if it dies down, this should be an urgent marker that a failure to restore growth carries profound risks, far worse than a few burned cars and shuttered factories. The great recession may be reordering the global balance of power.

First published: City A.M., 21/9/12

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