Is China really ready to go to war over a pile of rocks? Six months ago, it certainly felt that way. Now, not quite as much.

Back in August and September, anti-Japanese riots were springing up around China, catalyzed by competing claims over what the Chinese call the Diaoyu Islands and the Japanese call the Senkaku Islands. The small archipelago (five islets and three rocks), located 90 miles northeast of Taiwan, is notable only for the oil, minerals and fish that allegedly lie beneath it and the intense emotions and claims that surround it.

Then, China’s microblogs were filled with mixed feelings about the riots but not about the islands themselves: Sovereignty, in the eyes of the Chinese, is indisputably theirs. And while not every Chinese netizen was martially minded, the voices calling for diplomacy or moderation amid the escalating crisis were certainly few.

In the last several weeks, that hyped state of commentary has begun to ebb as prominent voices in social and traditional media have started to argue that perhaps war may not actually be in China’s best interest. Such voices aren’t popular, at least if measured in terms of the often-abusive comments directed at them on Chinese microblogs. Still, they represent a significant new perspective.

The need for this perspective is critical. Since August, the crisis has rarely left the news and opinion pages of China’s major newspapers or the trending-topic lists of the country’s microblogs. Diplomatic skirmishes, military brinkmanship and heightened rhetoric in both Japan and China have contributed to its popularity.

Robust Response

Among the most prominent Chinese voices calling for a more robust response to Japan has been the Global Times, the Communist Party-owned, hypernationalist, saber-rattling newspaper widely assumed to represent -- among other factions -- hawkish elements of China’s military. On Dec. 24 last year, the paper editorialized:

“The Chinese government is playing the leading role in securing Diaoyu’s sovereignty. Japan’s provocation in the islands is no longer aimed at individual Chinese but is a direct challenge to China’s reputation. If the government steps back, it will become the world’s laughing stock. If it goes forward, it will face military confrontation between the two.

“Going forward is the only choice for the Chinese government, while it needs to think carefully about how to strike Japan’s arrogance and at the same time maintain peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region.”

For much of January, the online and editorial rhetoric surrounding the islands didn’t waver much from the Global Times template. Then, in mid-January, the rhetoric shifted to a more moderate tone,with one of the most commented-upon examples of the shift appearing in, of all places, a Jan. 22 editorial in the Global Times. Ma Yong, a frequent contributor to the paper’s opinion pages and a researcher at the Institute of Modern History at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, published a nominally anti-war editorial (a watered-down version of the piece appeared in the paper’s English-language edition on Feb. 3). It opens with a blunt, characteristic, responsibility-shifting historical analysis:

“From 1860-1945, Japan was largely the bane of China’s development. It interrupted two important development opportunities of China.”

The Sino-Japanese War of 1894 to 1895 and World War II are the culprits he references. According to Ma, the same disaster could happen again if China allows Japan to lure it into war: “But for China, if a war over the Diaoyu Islands dispute erupts, even if China wins the war, its modernization process would be broken for a third time, with solutions to existing problems delayed infinitely rather than solved.”

Shifting Tone

What accounts for the shift in tone at the Global Times? On Dec. 13, Japanese jets were scrambled against a Chinese surveillance plane near the islands and tensions escalated considerably. Perhaps cooler heads at the paper (and the Communist Party units that control it) decided to tone down the rhetoric in fear of where it was leading.

Whatever the reason, over the last several weeks, the argument that war over the Diaoyu Islands -- win or lose -- isn’t in China’s interests has begun to appear in the news media. No doubt, this pullback has been further inspired by Japanese allegations (officially disputed by China) that on Jan. 19 and 30, Chinese ships had locked fire-control radar on a Japanese helicopter and vessel, respectively, near the islands.

Online, the pragmatic anti-war case has been paralleled by an emerging, even more unexpected argument: The Communist Party uses the islands dispute to distract Chinese from governance issues. Typically, that argument is made by anonymous, poorly followed individuals. But in recent days, more credible voices have begun to question whether the government’s approach to conflict is in the interest of China’s people or just its rulers.

On Feb. 11, Mao Yushi, an iconoclastic economist and social reformer with a history of challenging Communist Party orthodoxy, logged into Sina Weibo, China’s leading microblog, and tweeted one of the more remarkable and controversial tweets in recent Chinese social-media history to his 1-million-plus followers:

“My fellow citizens (including you sober-minded politicians): For thousands of years, rulers have taught us to be patriotic. It is they who represent the nation. To love the nation is to love them and their political power. They seldom tell us why we should love the nation. I think patriotism is ultimately for the benefit of the common people, and that patriotism which is detrimental to the people is wrong. … To fight for Diaoyu islands is patriotic, but it is of no benefit to the people.”

Serious Traffic

As of the evening of Feb. 13 in China, Mao’s tweet had been forwarded more than 25,400 times and had generated more than 18,500 comments. This is serious traffic for a political issue on Sina Weibo (which tends to be more concerned with celebrity gossip and reality television), even one as popular as the Diaoyu Islands. Nonetheless, it’s very much the case that most of those comments were negative, with feedback ranging from the polite (“I do not agree with what you write”) to the more direct (“You are a traitor”) to certain profanities quite harsh to be directed at an 84-year-old man.

Still, Mao Yushi isn’t without his supporters, the most prominent and political among these being Chen Zhiwu, a reform-minded Chinese national who is a professor at the Yale School of Management and has amassed an amazing 6.5 million followers on Sina Weibo.

On Feb. 12, he tweeted in defense of Mao’s anti-war sentiments: “Mao Yushi’s point is simple: If the goal of protecting the islands is achieving food security, then we can go and buy a wide stretch of land in America, Brazil or other places. After you buy that land, your rights as a landlord are nearly boundless. If protecting the islands is done to secure mineral or other resources, keep in mind that we can buy them in other countries. If land and resources can be purchased and achieve the same goals, why should we go to war to obtain them? Is a war worth ruining the whole Chinese economy and society?”

It’s an audacious argument to make on China’s patriotic microblogs, but it differs only marginally from Mo Yong’s January argument in the Global Times for an economically minded assessment of what would be lost in a war with Japan. As of the evening of Feb. 13 in China, Chen’s tweet had been forwarded more than 3,100 times and had generated more than 2,500 comments, the majority of which were negative. But unlike Mao Yushi’s comment thread, Chen’s, at least, has garnered some positive, if muted, support.

That’s hardly indicative of a shift in Chinese public opinion toward a more moderate approach to Japan. But the fact that prominent voices in both traditional and social media spheres are emerging in opposition to military action as a way to solve the islands conflict is critically important to achieving stability in East Asia’s unsettled waters.

(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is writing “Junkyard Planet,” a book on the global recycling industry. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the author of this article: Adam Minter at ShanghaiScrap@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net.