Shops and restaurants in China started to flash photographs with red banners in the background, rejoicing in Abe’s tragic demise and offering discounts.
On 8 July 2022, the assassination of Shinzo Abe, longest serving Japanese Prime Minister, shocked the entire world. Condolences poured in from around the world, as the world mourned the tragic death of Abe. Even Russian President, Vladimir Putin, who has been increasingly treated as a social pariah in the wake of Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine, and has been subjected to harsh sanctions by Japan, was quick to send his condolences to the mother and to the wife of the late Shinzo Abe. President Putin called him “an exceptional statesman” and a “wonderful man”, who did a lot for good neighbourly relations between Russia and Japan. National flags around the world flew half mast, and many countries including India declared a day of national mourning. This was certainly owing to his personal bonding with global leaders, his statesmanship, Abenomics, which brought Japan out of deflation, and his vision for Japan, the region and beyond.
Surprisingly, President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan, offered their condolences only on 9 July 2022, however, by now Abe’s assassination had already ignited unprecedented schadenfreude in the hearts of “Little Pinks” (小粉紅) and “Old Pinks” (老粉紅)—mostly jingoistic nationalists in China. Chinese social media was flooded with messages cheering the assassination and pronouncing the assassin as a “hero”. Some called it a “party time”, some lamented that no “fireworks were allowed” and yet others opined that would have been better had the “serving prime minister” been shot together with the Korean. Soon the shops and restaurants started to flash photographs with red banners in the background, rejoicing in Abe’s tragic demise and offering discounts on the occasion. “Celebrate Abe’s return to the West, milk tea buy one get one free, celebrations will continue for three days, rejoice with the world” read one of the banners. Another was even accompanied with its Japanese translation: “Yesterday, it was the 7th July incident, today Abe bade good bye, in order to celebrate Abe’s demise, buy one dozen of beers and get one dozen free.” The most atrocious of all was a group of Chinese drinking around a round table with a banner in the background reading, “Warmly celebrate the glorious assassination of Japanese devil Shinzo Abe.” Yet those who sympathised with Abe, invited the wrath of the “Little Pinks”. Amongst these were the hawkish Global Times former editor, Hu Xi Jin, and Renmin University professor, Jin Canron, who happened to share Hu’s thread. Conversely, Malaysian singer Fish Leong’s (梁静茹) song “unfortunately it’s not you” (可惜不是你) was taken off the internet when netizens started dropping messages underneath the song. Why has Abe’s assassination excited schadenfreude in China?
Though the “Little and Old Pinks” in China have demonstrated similar traits during India’s pandemic deaths last year, but in Japan’s case the national hatred is more complex and deeper. At the outset, Japan has a certain role in China’s “century of humiliation”, besides the Western nations. Qing China was totally decimated by Japan in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) that tilted the balance of power in Asia favouring Japan for the first time. China was forced to accept the independence of Korea, pay an indemnity of 200 million silver taels and cede the Liaodong Peninsula, Taiwan and Penghu Islands to Japan. Though the Senkaku or Diaoyu Islands were not mentioned by the treaty, but Ryukyu had long terminated its tributary relations with China in 1874, and in 1879 these were formally annexed and renamed as Okinawa Prefecture by Japan. China argues that the Cairo Declaration of December 1943 and the Potsdam Proclamation of July 1945 explicitly states that Japan should restore to China all the territories it had stolen or taken by violence and greed. Having had a foothold in Liaodong Peninsula, Japan later created the Manchuguo or the State of Manchuria in China’s northeast in 1932, in which most of the deputy ministers were Japanese. Shinzo Abe’s maternal grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi was one of them and served as the Deputy Minister of Industrial Development. After Japan’s all out invasion of aggression of China on 7 July 1937, Kishi was instrumental in using slave labour in Manchukuo for propping up Japan’s industrial production to fulfil the war goals. Kishi also served in the wartime cabinet of Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, and has been listed by China as a “Class-A war criminal”. His paternal grandfather, Kan Abe, was also a member of the House of Representatives, but opposed Tojo’s militarism.
Nobusuke Kishi abhorred communism, visited Taiwan in official capacity in 1957 and later in 1969, and approved of Chiang Kai-shek recovering the Mainland. His government pronounced China as an aggressor and was against restoring China’s permanent membership in the United Nations. Japan’s Taiwan complex continues to haunt Sino-Japanese relations. An ardent supporter of Taiwan, Shinzo Abe has openly supported Taiwan against the Mainland threat. In December 2021, Abe hinted at a possible Japanese military role in Taiwan contingency. Abe had said during a virtual appearance at a Taiwan think tank that “A Taiwan emergency is a Japanese emergency, and therefore an emergency for the Japan-US alliance.” “People in Beijing, President Xi Jinping in particular, should never have a misunderstanding in recognising this.” China had reacted sharply on these comments, and had recounted the war crimes of the Abe family in China. The Global Times remarked in one of its commentaries that “One of the real problems within the family that concerns every Chinese is that they all have an above-mentioned filthy finger stretched into the Taiwan Straits, which, in a serious narrative, is an outrageous attempt to relive its militarist dream.”
China has also been riled by the Indo-Pacific construct, materialisation of which is also credited to Shinzo Abe. Abe had first mentioned it during his Speech to the Indian parliamentarians in 2007, and since then, spin-offs of the strategy such as the Quad, AUKUS, and Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) have come into being. China sees them as “small circles” (小圈子), with an attempt to reconstruct the network of alliances and partners of the United States in the Asia-Pacific region for containing China. Obviously, China is concerned as more and more countries, now the European Union too, are increasingly using freedom of navigation and overflight along with a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific to defy China’s coercive policies in the region. Abe could be regarded as the promotor and champion of the global economic order. When President Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in 2017, Abe convinced 10 other TPP member states to stay on course, and won their support for a Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), the new avatar of the TPP. In 2015, he announced US$110 billion in aid for “high-quality” infrastructure development in Asia over the next five years. Other measures like Asia-Africa Growth Corridor and IPEF etc., frameworks that emphasise transparency and high quality are believed to be pitched against China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In a recently concluded G7 summit, the bloc also committed to raise US$600 billion in private and public funds over five years to finance infrastructure in developing countries and counter China’s BRI.
Finally, in the face of China’s rise and its burgeoning hard power, Abe wished to change the Japanese pacifist Constitution, especially Article 9 that not only forbids the use of force as a means to settle international disputes, but also bars Japan from maintaining an army. Since 2014, Japan has lifted the ban on collective self-defence, particularly in a bid to strengthen its cooperation with the US, and defend allies under attack irrespective of on Japanese or overseas territories. The Taiwan contingency mentioned above could be interpreted in this context and pave way for Japan’s entry into the South-China Sea and Taiwan Strait etc., conflicts. Abe’s legacy, the way he steered diplomatic, economic and security interests of Japan and allies in the region and beyond, and built alliances to realise his vision, is sure to be furthered by the present Japanese administration. As rightly put forth by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, “His [Abe’s] life may have been cut short tragically, but his legacy will endure forever.”
B.R. Deepak is Professor, Center of Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.