The murder of Shinzo Abe as seen from China

The murder of Shinzo Abe as seen from China

Institutional condolences, nationalist exultation, strategic criticism. China reacted with a three-pronged approach to Shinzo Abe's murder. One led by the government, one by netizens and one by the state media. With some incursion of voices outside the tripartite chorus. The former prime minister of Japan, the longest-lived since the post-war period, lived in a relationship that was nothing short of contrasting with Beijing, largely convinced that Abe was above all a nationalist with a revisionist agenda. A partial truth of a leader with a very pragmatic approach and driven above all by the need to reawaken Japan from the two "lost decades". On the economic level, with the Abenomics. On the political level, with the never completed overcoming of the pacifist constitution imposed by the United States after the end of the Second World War. On the diplomatic level, bringing Japan back to having geopolitical and strategic ambitions. And consequently a global status.

The parable of the relations between Abe and China Xi Jinping has preferred to focus on the lights of the relationship with Abe. The Chinese president waited about 24 hours after the attack and then wrote a message to Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, in which he said he was "deeply saddened by the sudden death" of Abe. "In the past, I have reached an important agreement with him on building China-Japan relations," Xi added. The reference is to the trade and bilateral relations agreements reached during Abe's important visit to Beijing in 2019. The Beijing Embassy in Tokyo also stated that "former premier Shinzo Abe contributed to the improvement of relations between China and Japan during his term".

It should be remembered, in fact, that when Abe began his second term in 2012, relations between China and Japan were at a minimum. The tensions on the disputed Senkaku / Diaoyu islands and the lack of dialogue between governments had also led to extensive boycott campaigns of Japanese products in China, with several news episodes with violence on Japanese properties in Chinese territory. Abe has raised relations progressively but continuously. Towards China he was assertive on the level of security and territorial disputes, accommodating on the commercial level and on the internal dossiers of the People's Republic.

After the 2019 agreements he was even ready to take relationships to "a new dimension". In the spring of 2020, a visit (which would have been historic) by Xi to Tokyo was planned. In the plans of the two leaders it was to be the appointment to seal a new era in bilateral relations between the two Asian giants. But that visit never happened. The Covid-19 pandemic forced first to suspend it, then to cancel it. Abe had also suffered several criticisms on the home front for not immediately closing the borders with China. Expectation motivated precisely by the awaited visit of Xi.

On social media, Chinese nationalists rejoice But the pandemic has caused not only a freeze, but a real estrangement. The virus has accelerated Tokyo's need to distance itself from Beijing. Both from a political and a commercial point of view. Not towards an unfeasible decoupling for the second and third world economies, which are deeply interconnected. But if anything, towards diversification, as demonstrated by the China Exit program launched by Abe himself in the spring of 2020. Japan was forced to discover its cards earlier than expected. Abe is the true demiurge of the Indo-Pacific concept already in 2007 during his first term and in unsuspecting times with the United States still very far from entering into confrontation mode with Beijing.

His vision was to strengthen security and defense relations with the United States, NATO and other Indo-Pacific countries such as India and Australia. But this process had to take place progressively, building a regional architecture capable of absorbing the unpredictability (and unreliability) of America manifested during the Trump administration. Without placing oneself in a position of confrontation with China, but rather building, one jersey at a time, a rescue net on the defensive level. However, keeping diplomatic and commercial relations with Beijing fluid.

This change of course is what has remained most in the minds of the Chinese, especially those with a nationalist inclination. Immediately after the news of the attack, many celebrated on Chinese social networks. The attack immediately became a trend, there were those who called the killer a "hero", stating that not only would he enter Japanese history, but he would also be remembered in Chinese history books. The comment "this is a historic day" was particularly recurring. Many recalled Abe's visits to the Yasukuni shrine, dedicated to the soldiers who died for the Japanese empire. Heroes for Tokyo, criminals for Beijing. Abe had gone to the shrine in 2013, shortly after the start of his second term, and in 2020 only a few days after his resignation. A photo posted on social media near the shrine during a trip to Japan a few years earlier caused, among other things, several problems for the Chinese actor Zhang Zhehan.

Since Abe resigned, he had taken on a much stronger line towards China. Also entering on issues that he had previously avoided. Hong Kong, Xinjiang but above all Taiwan. In 2021 he had himself portrayed with Taiwanese pineapples (as former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did) after Beijing blocked imports. He spoke to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and in recent weeks he even explicitly asked Joe Biden to abandon the traditional strategic ambiguity on the island by clarifying that the US military would intervene militarily in the event of a Chinese aggression in Taipei.

Still on Chinese social networks, there are also those who recalled that the murder took place just one day after the 85th anniversary of the beginning of the Japanese invasion of China (which in the People's Republic is called the "war of resistance against Japan "), which began on July 7, 1937. Controversy also over the journalist Zeng Ying, correspondent from Tokyo of the Chinese portal "The Paper", attacked on Weibo because she barely held back her tears during a video link on the attack. The journalist then had to apologize after being accused of "unprofessional" and "unpatriotic" attitude.

The unconventional voices and indirect media criticism But, again on social media, there are also voices different. Two Asian songs ended up in trend. Unfortunately Not You by Malaysian Fish Leong and That Day Will Come by Singaporean JJ Lin. With implicit references to Xi. Fish Leong's song has been removed from Chinese platforms.

Chinese state media, on the other hand, rely on local academics and experts for some evaluation. The explicit positions on Abe have in recent days been mixed in a semi-balanced way. The Global Times, for example, cites in the same article Liu Qingbin who cites Abe's efforts to improve relations with China and Lian Degui who speaks of "collusion with the anti-Chinese hawks of the United States." In a more subtle way, however, Abe's murder is used to underline and emphasize Japan's internal problems: from the unprecedented issue of security to social unease, from economic problems to the life of marginalized sections of the population.

On the other hand, between China and Japan, it is a time of strong tensions. Tokyo has held a very clear line on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, siding more and more explicitly with Washington and approaching with unprecedented steps towards NATO, as evidenced by Kishida's participation in the Madrid summit. Chinese and Russian ships pass more and more often off the Japanese territory and in recent weeks a flotilla of the People's Liberation Army has circumnavigated the archipelago. And raids around the disputed islands have intensified. Maneuvers that Beijing warns may become "routine". On the other side of the Strait, however, Abe's death represents a shock in some ways even greater than the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In Taiwan, Abe was considered to be the most trusted ally.

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