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On Aug. 24, Japan began releasing treated radioactive waste water from the tsunami-wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean. Although the International Atomic Energy Agency signed off on the plan as “consistent with international safety standards,” Beijing has raised vociferous protests, criticizing the move in state-controlled media outlets for months ahead of the release, stoking anger among Chinese netizens and consumers, and orchestrating a coordinated disinformation campaign on international social media platforms, dating back to the start of the year.
Anger at Japan transcends the internet
Outrage exploded on Chinese social media platforms following the release. While these platforms are heavily censored and highly curated, the campaign seems to have resonated with the Chinese public: According to Morning Consult’s daily Political Intelligence data, the share of Chinese adults holding “very” unfavorable views of Japan rose in the run-up to the release and spiked in its aftermath. A clear majority now hold very unfavorable views of Japan, according to the 7-day moving average of our daily surveys.
Extremely Negative Chinese Views of Japan Have Spiked Since the Fukushima Water Release
Anger accelerated in the lead-up to the discharge event, which had been planned for two years and was officially cleared by the IAEA in July. In the month ahead of the Aug. 24 release, the 7-day moving average of the share of Chinese adults holding very unfavorable views of Japan rose by roughly 9 percentage points. In the aftermath of the release it climbed another 17 points, reaching 58% by early September.
Indeed, public anger has spilled over from the internet, with a rock and eggs being thrown at Japanese schools in China, and abusive phone calls being made to Japanese businesses from numbers with Chinese dialing codes. Tokyo has taken the extraordinary step of warning its citizens in China not to speak loudly in public.
Chinese anger has measurable economic impacts
Although the water discharged at Fukushima contains a concentration of radioactive tritium more than six times lower than the limit set by the World Health Organization for safe drinking water — and 13 Chinese power plants each released more tritium into the Pacific in 2021 than Fukushima is slated to discharge in one year — Beijing immediately banned all imports of Japanese seafood. China is Japan’s top seafood export market, with China and Hong Kong (which issued a more limited ban) accounting for about $1.1 billion dollars of its seafood exports annually. Chinese consumers are targeting a number of other industries as well, with Japanese cosmetic makers especially singled out for boycotts.
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While our research shows that multinationals faced with consumer boycotts in China have a number of options, the state-directed origins of this campaign mean that Japanese brands and industries may be in for some pain. The broad national focus of these efforts serve Chinese President Xi Jinping’s desire for the economy to become more self-sufficient, though pocketbook constraints amid China’s floundering recovery may ultimately mitigate purchasing decisions. Nonetheless, multinational corporations with significant presences in both China and Japan would do well to tread lightly around the issue.
China’s campaign pays political dividends at home and potentially abroad
With China’s economy struggling, Beijing’s smear campaign is likely intended to unify national sentiment and redirect frustrations away from the central government toward a common enemy. China’s long history of enmity with Japan makes it a useful target, with these efforts enabled by an educational system that emphasizes historical grievance.
Tarring Japan also serves Beijing’s international agenda, given Japan’s growing international profile and willingness to shoulder a larger regional defense burden. Efforts at rapprochement between Japan and South Korea — the United States’ two most significant allies in the region — is a source of strategic concern for China. The Fukushima release has led to a public outcry in South Korea as well, with opposition politicians stoking anger despite Prime Minister Han Duck-soo’s calls for moderation. In a sign of the rapprochement’s geopolitical stakes for Seoul, Han’s office publicized an official lunch of Japanese seafood.
This too shall pass
While anger directed overseas may serve Beijing for the time being, public upset can be tricky to control. Beijing has a long history of fomenting outrage only to reel it back in before it risks losing control of the narrative. Public anger of any kind, even nationalist in origin, can quickly spiral in China, especially if the government is seen as not sufficiently defending China’s interests.
Given the unprecedented public protests that swept China late last year, Beijing will be especially wary of shows of outrage — even those directed outward — that coalesce into any sort of publicly organized movement. Moreover, China’s public desperately needs foreign investment, and Beijing can ill afford anything that makes China seem even more “uninvestable.” Beijing will continue making political hay out of the Fukushima discharge only as long as it serves its purposes, which is not likely to be for all that long.