Japanese aid message lost on deaf Chinese ears

Ralph Jennings says that the Chinese media, riveted by "lingering World War II issues", insufficiently informs the general public about Japan's assistance

The Japan Times
Tuesday, January 11, 2005

BEIJING (Kyodo) Over the past four years, the Japanese government has spent at least 350 million yen on drugs, scopes and syringes to strike down tuberculosis in China, where there are 4.5 million active cases.

Supply packs note that the contents are paid for by a Japanese government grant, so patients know where the unexpected donation has come from. Media in tuberculosis-affected areas also cite the source.

"One of my colleagues met a patient from a rural area, and my colleague says some of the patients thanked Japan," said Satoshi Nakamura, a program manager with the Japan International Cooperation Agency in Beijing.

But China-based Japanese officials are still beleaguered by widespread Chinese hostility over lingering World War II issues, even as they aim to tell locals more about the TB program and other things contained in the 25-year-old official development assistance package.

Their quest to put the spotlight on Japan's largess is coming just as legislators in Tokyo are starting to debate aid reductions -- in part for political reasons.

"In the past, there have only been a few articles showing thanks for the Japanese side," said Tetsuo Konaka, senior Beijing representative with the Japan Bank for International Cooperation, which has given China 1.68 billion yen in loans averaging 30 years and 1.5 percent interest.

"We feel it's hard to penetrate the Chinese media, especially in the interior part of China."

Many Chinese, more inclined to think Japan has done nothing but bad for China since the 1931 occupation and World War II, do not even know Japan has been giving ODA in a combination of grants, loans and technical expertise since just after former leader Deng Xiaoping visited Japan.

From 1980 to 2003, Japan gave China 39.92 billion yen.

Chinese leaders know about the aid and have expressed thanks, as do hospitals, schools and other parties who directly receive it. But despite ODA product labels and opening ceremonies for aid-funded projects, many Chinese still say they don't know ODA has contributed to the construction of Beijing's subway system, a major airport in the city or scores of transportation, waterway and education projects around the country since 1997.

Japan says it donates aid to China not as an apology for World War II (though individual legislators may choose to see it that way), but to support open-market reforms and development of poor regions.

Japan sends ODA to other Asian countries as well.

"I have some concerns that through the Chinese media, people only hear about the Japanese military in World War II," said Keiji Ide, public relations minister at the Japanese Embassy in Beijing. "I wish there was more effort to learn. Japanese (aid) efforts should be better understood."

Students at the Beijing International Studies University, although they knew little about ODA, said Japanese aid is a good gesture but that it can't take the place of a formal apology for World War II.

They were also ambivalent about the prospect of seeing more aid-related media coverage.

"They should report it like aid from other countries but not hype it up," said first-year Japanese-language major Li Longyan, who had heard of Japan's ODA but knew few details about it. "Who would more publicity be good for? Japan."

After a minute of pondering media coverage and whether the aid constitutes an apology, a 20-year-old Japanese-language major surnamed Deng said, "That question is too cutting."

Over the past two months, the Chinese public has been learning more about the ODA because local media are running articles -- some nonchalant, others objective and critical -- about Japan's plan to debate the reduction of aid some time over the next six years. In the meantime, China's average monthly household income is pushing the 1,400 yuan (about 17,600 yen) threshold.

Aid was cut in 2001 because of China's increased military spending and pressure in Japan to prime the economy.

China does not need the aid financially because it has a wide variety of other sources to draw from, such as development banks and direct foreign investment, according to Peter So, head of China equity research with ING Financial Markets in Hong Kong.

"I don't expect the impact (of a reduction) to be very significant," he said. "China can find new capital to support various industries if Japan withdraws the assistance."