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Police in China Arrest the ‘Spiritually Japanese’

Published: August 21, 2019
22-year-old Zhang Dongning was arrested for 'humiliating China' with her satirical cartoons. (Image: via Weibo)

Several people have been recently jailed by the Chinese authorities for being “spiritually Japanese,” including a young woman who drew more than 300 cartoons deemed to have “humiliated China.” 

Zhang Dongning, a 22-year-old college student from Huainan in eastern China’s Anhui Province, was reported to be an enthusiast of Japanese culture, and was arrested upon returning from a trip to Japan. 

In her comics, Ms. Zhang drew all Chinese people as anthropomorphized pigs, or “ pigple.” Most of her scenes reflect politically or socially sensitive phenomena, such as the Chinese Communist Party’s callous treatment of struggling veterans, the uncouth behavior of Chinese tourists overseas, or public reactions to a recent scandal in which foreign exchange students were paired with large numbers of female Chinese students at university in Shandong Province, some with multiple women each, for the ostensible purpose of language study. 

One of Zhang's cartoons makes fun of the uncouth behavior of many Chinese when visiting all-you-can-eat buffets. (Image: Weibo)

One of Zhang’s cartoons makes fun of the uncouth behavior of many Chinese when visiting all-you-can-eat buffets. (Image: Weibo)

‘Spiritually Japanese’

Police said that Zhang and others were trying to attract fame in the “spiritually Japanese,” or jingri (精日) community, an online subculture for Japanese culture-lovers. The same day as Zhang’s arrest was announced, police in Liaoning Province, northeastern China, reported that they had detained a man in his thirties surnamed Lu. Lu reportedly helped Zhang Dongning post her cartoons online. 

Police accused Zhang of “insulting Chinese people’s image, intentionally distorting China’s historical facts, and misinterpreting trending news in China and overseas,” according to the official statement. She was also accused of “collaborating with the online ‘Spiritually Japanese’ movement to carry out ‘illegal activities,’” Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported.

“[The cartoons] had seriously hurt Chinese feelings and trampled on national dignity, the impact on society was very damaging,” portions of the statement translated by The Epoch Times read. The police had decided to arrest Zhang to prevent “future criminal activities” and “clean up internet space.” 

According to The Epoch Times, the police had launched their investigation into Zhang’s cartoon series in October 2018. Another seven individuals’ arrests were announced the same day as those of Zhang and Lu, on accusations of being “pro-Japan.”

Prior to the July 28 announcements, others in the jingri community have been detained for dressing up in Imperial Japanese military uniforms and posing for photos with replica weapons and swords. 

A number of Chinese have been arrested for posing with World War II Japanese uniforms. (Image: Weibo)

A number of Chinese have been arrested for posing with World War II Japanese uniforms. (Image: Weibo)

According to Sixth Tone, an online publication with a pro-Beijing slant, five people were arrested in 2017 for wearing Japanese uniforms at the site of a major battle near Shanghai. Last year, a man was placed under administrative detention for “extremist” speech about the infamous 1937 Nanjing Massacre, where hundreds of thousands of Chinese were murdered or raped after the fall of the city to the Imperial Japanese Army.  

‘Pigple’ satire

The jingri phenomenon has gained some online popularity — and notoriety — in recent years, with some sharing Japanese far-right opinions or defending the Japanese invasion of China. 

“There are some young people in China who feel that Japan is good at everything,” U.S.-based political commentator Li Hongkuan told RFA. “They love Japanese culture. Some of them take it too far, though.”

But many Chinese online comments noted that Zhang Dongning’s depictions generally had nothing to do with Imperial Japan, and were mainly criticisms of contemporary issues in China that reflect poorly upon the communist authorities

“What I eat is tainted food, what I drink is tainted water, what I breathe is tainted air,” a Chinese social media user wrote, according to The Epoch Times. “Thank you for depicting the truth.”

One of Zhang’s depictions shows a bloodied veteran holding up a sign and begging for food, as a scowling police-pig stands behind him, a reference to the way Chinese authorities suppressed rallies by elderly veterans asking for their pensions. In the background, a statue located in “Pigple Square” shows a communist leader extending a hoof in salute. 

One of Zhang's cartoons, depicting a Chinese veteran begging for food. (Image: Weibo)

One of Zhang’s cartoons, depicting a Chinese veteran begging for food. (Image: Weibo)

A New Year illustration, drawn for 2019, which is the Year of the Pig by the traditional Chinese calendar, shows a large red pig in the geographical shape of China, with a multitude of incidents drawn throughout the “map.” Two characters depicting a Taiwanese and a Hongkonger are drawn as monkeys. 

Chinese netizens lamenting the CCP authoritarian regime have often likened living in China to leading a pig’s life, since the Communist Party channels people’s energy away from public or spiritual matters and onto the unbridled pursuit of material prosperity and enjoyment. 

Zhang's Year of the Pig-themed cartoon. (Image: Weibo)

Zhang’s Year of the Pig-themed cartoon. (Image: Weibo)

Official motivations

Zang Qiyu, a Chinese rights lawyer who has offered to represent Zhang Dongning free of charge, noted that Zhang was being held in criminal detention, rather than the more common administrative detention used for minor infractions.

“It would be fine just to give her an administrative punishment: she is so young, still a college student of 22 years old,” Qi told RFA. “If she is sentenced, this will have a negative affect for the rest of her life.”

If Zhang is sentenced, it "will have a negative affect for the rest of her life," said a human rights lawyer (Image: Weibo)

If Zhang is sentenced, it ‘will have a negative affect for the rest of her life,’ said a human rights lawyer (Image: Weibo)

Li Hongkuan, the commentator, told RFA that the recent arrests may have less to do with the “spiritually Japanese” themselves and more with the incentives placed on public security to find cases in need of suppression.” It may have something to do with the Domestic Security Division’s funding in some areas; there’s not enough cases for them to handle, so they look for something interesting,” he said.

Liu Bin, a Chinese merchant doing business in Tokyo, said the arrests could also be motivated by the large increase in Chinese visiting Japan and coming back with a positive impression of the country.

“There’s been a lot [of people] these last couple years,” Liu told RFA. “Because they were affected by [anti-Japanese] propaganda in China, they are surprised when they see the situation in Japan, it’s different from what’s said in the propaganda. They find that many good things in Japan are actually things from traditional Chinese culture that have been lost today, but preserved over there.” 

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