Overtaking Japan: Tigers Ready to Pounce

The Japanese economy grew 4.6% in the last quarter of 2009, meaning that Japan has managed to stave off, if only briefly, China’s moment of ascension as the world’s second biggest economy in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  Thus, as the Year of the Tiger begins, Chinese media are preparing for the big moment when China surpasses Japan, the signpost for which will be the announcement of 2010 first quarter numbers in April 2010.

The Huanqiu Shibao carried two stories on this theme yesterday:

09年日本GDP险超中国; 虎年恐被中国超越 [In 2009, Japanese GDP Exceeded China’s; In the Year of the Tiger, [Japan] Fears to be Exceeded by China]”


韩媒称中日谁是世界第二经济大国四月见分晓 [South Korean Media State that In April, the Dust Will Settle on Who, China or Japan, is the World’s Second Biggest Economy]”

Thus, the phrase “老二 / lao er” is getting thrown around as China looks to move firmly into the number 2 slot globally, making it sound as if the world order were some kind of Confucian family of older brothers jostling for respect. As Joel Martinsen of Danwei reported with a stalwart translation of the Huanqiu coverage of the U.S. State of the Union address, 老二 was the very idiomatic way which Xinhua decided to render Barack Obama’s statement about not settling for second place, a statement which also served as a headline.  Thus the Sino-Japanese-American triangle thickens!

Apart from such phraseology, though, the economic content of the articles themselves doesn’t differ significantly from Western media reports.  What is interesting is the breadth of the internet comments left on the stories, most of which are fairly dissatisfied.  You might argue that this is  the CCP’s way of mixing pride with a bit of hunger for future achievements, but you might also say that such comments indicate the level of sensitivity in China toward economic issues.  Many people don’t particularly care about the size of the GDP, and, although China’s national pride (such as it can be quantified) might be considered to be inflated just slightly by the prospect of “beating” Japan, most people understand that China’s huge population means that per capita incomes are going to take decades to catch up with the West (and with Japan).

You can read more netizen comments on the two stories here and here, but I’ll leaven out a few representative samples:

我也没看出来世界第二有什么好,我照样很穷!– I also have yet to see the good of being ranked globally second, I’m as poor as ever!

媒体觉得有意思吗?老百姓可是很反感呀!– The media find this interesting?  But the common people are really disgusted!

国民经济总产值超越日本,没有什么值得骄傲的,打个比方:中国人口是日本13倍,一个日本人收入100元,而13个中国人收入100元,中国人均何时能超越日本?少说还得80年吧?– The [fact that the] total value of the national economy will surpass Japan  gives no real reason to be proud.  Look at this comparison: China has 13 times more people than Japan, [meaning that] it takes 13 Chinese people to produce income of 100 yuan versus one Japanese person to produce an income of 100 yuan.   When is China’s per capita income going to surpass Japan’s?  Maybe in 80 years?

to which another responds:

人均第二才行! — [It is] possible to move to number 2 in per capita income!

没意思,太没意思了!都炒糊了,人均呢?虎年我们要的是虎威,不要炒威! — Uninteresting, totally meaningless!   It’s all just fried paste.  Per capita income?  In the year of the tiger, we need the tiger’s power; what we don’t need is fried power?

[Note: this is one of the tricky things about translating BBS comments: is the really idiomatic language above indicative of a new nation-wide slang word, or is this cat local and/or high on Red Bull and feeling creative?  That’s why there’s no substitute for being in China…But if anyone can dissertate on the meaning of 炒糊,  炒威 or just plain 炒威, please don’t hesitate to comment on this post.]

As a kind of victory lap, however, Xinhua isn’t scared to publish stories like this one on how Japanese businessmen viewed China’s consumption explosion since the 1980s, or, in retroactive-my-GDP-now-allows-me-to-reinterpret-the-war mode, this photo gallery of the Eighth Route Army successfully attacking Japanese blockhouses in the North China countryside in the 1940s.  Isn’t that a nice symmetry?

Another fascinating story unlikely to make it into the ChinaSMACK translation queue — but in some ways indicative of societal trends — is about Chinese women taking trips to South Korea for plastic surgery.   I think that stories like this one can have a really disspiriting effect, but Xinhua seems to use them as evidence that China is prospering and furthering the kind of ongoing subtle and sometimes chippy national conversation about the relative merits of being rich in Japan, South Korea, and China.  Apparently a joke about South Korean plastic surgery made it into the big CCTV New Years’ gala, indicating someone in the upper echelons finds it funny, or, that Party guys with black sedans and mistresses with travel funds need jokes that cohere with their lives just like farmers in Dongbei need Zhao Benshan and er ren zhuan.  If only there were more blogs  in China like James Turnbull’s thoughtful, factually dense, well written and I would argue essential site on body image, gender, and advertising culture in South Korea

More impactful on the Sino-South Korean netizen front has been this story which discusses syntax.  That is, the Huanqiu story explains how Obama’s attempts to use the Lunar New Year for outreach into Asian American communities were directed by Korean-Americans into using the term “Asian New Year” rather than “Chinese New Year,” and thus playing nicely into the growing narrative of PRC angst over Korean perceived arrogance and desire to  subvert, subsume, and overtake Chinese culture.   Why else would there be 681 angry comments about such a thing?   China is truly surrounded by rivals of all kinds, and reaction times among the internet-saavy classes are swift. Reading the Huanqiu Shibao seems to make one aware that Obama is but a pawn in the larger Sino-Korean struggle for cultural adherents globally!

Anti-American anger has been at a slow boil for the past month, meaning that this story about American environmental activists trying to hamper Japanese whaling efforts isn’t getting much traction:


No, instead we get a long dissertation on the McMahon Line dividing Tibet from India and a slew of comments on recent statements by his Holiness which make their distorted way into the Chinese press.   The story’s title “达赖充当“印度之子”出卖中国领土和主权 [Dalai Lama Plays the role of “India’s Son” Going to Sell China’s Territory and Sovereignty]” makes Fox News’ portrayals of Barack Obama take on a slightly saintly, if still red, tinge.  Let’s not forget that when Obama meets with the Dalai Lama, many Chinese observers see an Indian plot at work.

Much more quiet have been stories about the ongoing joint historical work between Chinese and Japanese scholars on the Nanking Massacre.  Their January 31, 2010 report was front page news in papers in North American Chinatowns (I picked up my splashy headline in Seattle) but not highly emphasized in the Chinese press, as seen in this Huanqiu story.   Expect more writing on the topic of Sino-Japanese historical memory on this blog (e.g., S.V., by yours truly with the Ph.D.) in the near future.

And thus, the meow has become a roar; your Huanqiu roundup for the day concludes.

Tiger prowl in Harbin -- image via Le Monde, "Le oeil sur la Chine" -- click image for an intense gallery


  1. 炒糊 here means “beat it to death” as both Chinese and foreign media have been talking for months about China surpassing Japan as the second largest economy. As to “虎年我们要的是虎威,不要炒威!”, I think it can be interpreted as “While the power of the tiger is very real, the much-hyped speculation that China has surpassed Japan to become the second largest economy has no power whatsoever.” The commenter was showing his lack of enthusiasm and interest in this topic, really. Adam, are you familiar with the term 炒作?

    That Huanqiu Shibao story about “American environmental activists trying to hamper Japanese whaling efforts” is clearly quite pro-American since it mentions that the Americans were snatched by the Japanese in international waters.

    1. I see!!! Many thanks for the aid in sorting out the argot/wordplay — if ever I were able to extend the same to you, I could call myself “Yuanchao.” I enjoyed your recent commentary here with Sonagi, hopefully I can get over to your blog, which I consistently enjoy, and mix it up sometime, too.

  2. So, I can’t type chinese characters right now, so you’re going to have to deal with a majority english post explaining this. 炒糊 here means when you cook something so it turns black and burns, its also a play on the word 炒作 which is here is really “hype.” so, it should read something like “It’s just overblown hype.” much-hyped is ok, but the 炒糊 idea is really to overcook something, to burn it, to “overblow” something, ie, hype. The rest is just more puns off the tiger stuff, “in the year of the tiger we need real strength, (the strength of a tiger), not just a bunch of hype.” the puns are not going to translate well, so they’re best left off, in my opinion. They could have done even better and thrown in a few different variations on 唬, like 唬人, but, y’know, time’s short.

  3. Hi Adam,

    I was wondering what’s your take on the current widespread anti-Korean sentiment online? Anything to do with Korea on any blog or news site (as you mentioned with the Global Times article) gets a disproportionate amount of attention and I believe Korea was voted as the most disliked country by netizens in some online polls a while back.

    As you know there are a lot of fake news stories about how Koreans are stealing Chinese culture and how Koreans think Confucius, Sun Yatsen, dumplings, Chinese characters, and pretty much everything Chinese hold dear are actually Korean! What’s interesting is the speed such rumors have spread and now seem to be common knowledge, and not just in China itself. I’ve met Chinese in Malaysia, UK, and the US that tell me the same thing about how Koreans think such and such Chinese person or Chinese culture are Korean ect. I’ve been told four or five times seriously that Koreans think Yao Ming is Korean.

    I don’t understand how this happened in such a short time. Is this just some snowball effect from the Dragon Boat Festival controversy? Is this mainly a grassroots movement from some underlying resentment of Koreans due to the whole Korean wave? Is the idea that Koreans are a ‘cultural threat’ to China something the government wants to promote? Is it the mistreatment of Chinese students in Korea that helped start this?

    Anyways, if you could you share your thoughts on the issue that would be great. I’m really impressed by the efficacy of the whole movement and I wonder what it means for national smear campaigns in the future.


  4. oh cool, this information is really useful and definately is comment worthy! hehe. I’ll see if I can try to use some of this information for my own blog. Thanks!

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