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Why China's help to Japan carries weight

By Jaime FlorCruz, CNN
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China and old rivalries with Japan
  • Japanese and Chinese students raise donations for Japan's quake and tsunami survivors
  • In May 2008, an 8.0-magnitude quake in China's Sichuan province left over 80,000 dead
  • Anti-Japanese sentiment runs deep among some Chinese
  • World War II, territorial dispute among issues causing friction

Editor's note: "Jaime's China" is a weekly column about Chinese society and politics. Jaime FlorCruz has lived and worked in China since 1971. He studied Chinese history at Peking University (1977-81) and served as TIME Magazine's Beijing correspondent and bureau chief (1982-2000).

Beijing, China (CNN) -- Disasters usually bring out the best and the worst in people.

At Beijing Language and Culture University this week, it's the best.

Japanese and Chinese students gathered on campus during lunch break to raise cash donations for Japan's quake and tsunami survivors.

"We know the situation in Japan is terrible right now, so we hope that our activities can help the Japanese victims," said Chinese organizer Jing Yao, a junior aspiring to be Mandarin language teacher. "We want them to know that there are many people who care about them here in China."

Countless people across the globe are opening their hearts and wallets to help the Japanese, but the Chinese offer of help carries an extra weight.

China was one of the first to send a rescue team, a 15-member crew many of whom are now scouring disaster areas in Sendai searching for survivors.

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China has also flown millions of dollars in relief to Japan. "China is also a country prone to earthquake disasters, and we fully empathize with how they feel now," said Premier Wen Jiabao. "When China was hit with the massive Wenchuan earthquake, the Japanese government sent a rescue team and also offered rescue supplies." China is ready to give more, as Japan needs it, he added.

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China has been hit with two massive earthquakes in the past three years.

In May 2008, an 8.0-magnitude quake devastated Wenchuan in Sichuan province, leaving over 80,000 people dead or missing. In April last year, another major quake, followed by a mudslide, left more than 2,200 people dead in northwestern Qinghai province.

Just last week, a 5.8-magnitude quake shook southwestern Yunnan province. It killed at least 25 people, injured 250 others and destroyed many houses.

"We are still dealing with the aftermath of that quake, but it will not stand in our way to give aid to Japan," said an official in Beijing, who declined to be identified because he is not authorized to talk about the subject. "We genuinely sympathize with the Japanese people no matter what some netizens say," he said, referring to China's active online community that has not always been unanimous in supporting the aid effort.

At his school in Beijing, Japanese exchange student Makoto Hachiya appreciates the Chinese gestures of sympathy.

"Of course we are very moved and thankful for the support from our Chinese classmates," said Hachiya, a sophomore studying Mandarin, whose family lives near the quake's epicenter. "It shows how friendly and good the China-Japan relationship can be."

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Still, anti-Japanese sentiment runs deep among some Chinese.

On social networking sites, some bloggers were sarcastically "congratulating" Japan on the earthquake. Others have called the quake "baoying" (karma) for Japan's occupation of China during World War II. Their numbers may be few, but their voices echo deep-seated animosity.

The Chinese suffered miserably under Japan's wartime occupation from 1931 to 1945. Millions of lives were lost.

Nearly 70 years after the war ended, memories of Japan's war atrocities continue to bedevil the relations.

Even movies can reopen raw wounds.

I remember a controversy in the late 1990s when a big-budget movie, "Pride, the Fateful Moment," opened in Tokyo. The film, about wartime general Hideki Tojo, infuriated Japan critics in China because it claimed that Tojo was not so bad after all.

The movie also implied that the Nanjing Massacre, a killing spree by Japan's imperial army, may not have happened at all. China condemned the movie as an attempt to "whitewash Japanese wartime aggression."

Other irritants fester: the revision of Japan's history books, Japanese officials' visits to ancient shrines honoring wartime heroes, trade issues and territorial conflicts.

Of course we are very moved and thankful for the support from our Chinese classmates
--Makoto Hachiya, Japanese exchange student in Beijing
  • Japan
  • China

The two neighbors have a running dispute over a group of islands known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan. At stake in the conflicting claims: national pride and potentially lucrative natural gas drilling rights in waters around them.

Six months ago, the simmering territorial dispute erupted when Japanese patrol officers arrested the captain and crew of a Chinese fishing boat near the islands.

Meantime, at least, Japan's current woes are giving China a chance to show its soft side.

"It's a very important opportunity for China to make a statement in favor of the long-term values of cooperation and humane treatment of your neighbors," said David Kelly, professor at the University of Technology Sydney.

Students at Beijing Language and Culture University say their charity campaign is more important than the amount they collected because it transcended politics.

"There are many things in politics and diplomacy that China and Japan don't see eye-to-eye on, but because of this humanitarian situation and people's willingness to help, we're coming together and improving our relationship in a friendly way," said Hachiya of Japan.

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