Op-Ed Contributors

China can learn from Japan's past

By Feng Zhaokui (China Daily)
Updated: 2011-02-28 07:45
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During the course of Japan's rise to be the world's second-largest economy, the country paid a heavy environmental cost. Industrial waste and motor vehicle emissions threatened the nation. Because of drinking water and air pollution, some local residents suffered from Minamata disease and "itai-itai disease". "Damn GNP!" was a popular remark at that time in Japan.

Fortunately, since the 1970s Japan began to pay close attention to its environmental problem and has since made great achievements.

Japan as a "resource scarce country" was vulnerable to the two oil crises in the 1970s. Japan weathered the oil crises more smoothly than many resource-rich developed countries and further enhanced its industrial competitiveness and achieved remarkable results in environmental protection. With extraordinary courage, the Japanese government and enterprises went all out to adjust the industrial structure and vigorously develop energy-saving and nuclear energy technologies, and realized economic growth pattern transition.

Japan's auto output surpassed the United States in 1980 and in 1983 its machine industry exports overtook the US, which ranked first in both at that time. Ships built by Japan accounted for more than half of the world's total gross tonnage. Thus, Japan became the "world factory" in name and in fact and "Made in Japan" gained a worldwide reputation. Japan was increasingly worthy of its economic status as the world's No 2 economy.

But during the 1980s Japan posed a challenge to the US in economic terms, and even arrogantly claimed it would buy the US and turn the 21st century into "Japan's century". This made the US, which was the major supporter of Japan after World War II, feel the need to teach the nation it defeated during the war a lesson.

With increasingly fierce Japan-US trade frictions, the US not only tried to suppress Japan through various overt or covert measures while dealing with trade issues, but also forced Japan to accept the Plaza Agreement and the Basel I Accord.

The US has also ensured Japan remains in a subsidiary position within the US-Japan military alliance. Washington has no intention of allowing Japan, which is the only nation that has attacked US territory, from developing its military.

With its increased economic strength, Japan began to pursue the so-called "all-directional diplomacy" in the 1970s and gradually demanded equal status with the US within their military alliance.

Washington, by using tricks and exerting pressure upon Japanese domestic forces, has resisted and staged a vigorous fight back. For example, former Japanese Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei, during whose term China-Japan relationship realized normalization and former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama who dared to challenge the US over the relocation of US military base in Japan, have been "dethroned" by the US through tricks and the exerting of pressure upon Japanese domestic forces.

Japan's experience after becoming the world's second largest economy shows that it is a difficult position to be in. The strongest power always seeks to guard against, contain and suppress any emerging power that it thinks will threaten its superiority.

China seems not have prepared for becoming the world's second largest economy.

Japan was harshly suppressed by the US just because of its rising economic strength. So, it is highly probable that China, which is several times bigger than Japan in size and whose social system and ideology differ from the West, will suffer strong suppression from the US. Even though China has repeatedly stressed its adherence to peaceful development and reiterated that the nation's real comprehensive strength hasn't reached as high as its GDP statistics suggests.

So it is no coincidence that 2010 witnessed so many disputes between China and the US, and more importantly most of these disputes were stirred up by the US.

Domestically, all the problems that have accumulated during the process of development will have to be digested. In addition to environmental hazards and waste of resources, the increasingly fierce conflict between increasingly better social welfare and people's demand for tax cuts, the ever-growing gap between the haves and have-nots require that the central government has a long-term plan to maintain the country's development sustainable.

The status of the second largest economy means a lot of challenges for the Chinese government and its people.

The author is a researcher with the Institute of Japanese Studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.