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National humiliation: China still vanquishing, suppressing ghosts of past

by Jeff Kingston

Special To The Japan Times

Sept. 18 is unofficially National Humiliation Day in China, a day when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) commemorates Japanese aggression and atrocities. It is a time for wallowing in the national obsession with a century of indignities inflicted on a weak China until the CCP came to power in 1949. But the ignominies perpetrated by the Japanese cast the longest shadow in this vault of nightmares.

Humiliation is “celebrated” on the day in 1931 when Japanese troops staged a bombing of the Japanese railway in Mukden and blamed it on the Chinese, providing a pretext for a full-scale invasion of Manchuria. The resulting puppet state of Manchukuo was Japan’s quasi-colony. Tensions and outbreaks of violence continued in border regions in northern China with matters coming to a head on July 7, 1937 at Marco Polo Bridge on the outskirts of Beijing where skirmishing escalated into eight long years of war.

Ten years ago on this sensitive date, Chinese police raided a hotel where 400 Japanese company employees on a junket in the southern city of Zhuhai were having a three day “orgy” with 500 Chinese prostitutes, igniting nationalistic outrage about Japan’s wartime conduct. Certainly thoughtless, but one wonders how much longer China will keep vanquishing these particular ghosts of the past; its not like there is any shortage of other hobgoblins.

There is no reason, of course, to downplay the enormous suffering of the Chinese at the hands of Western and Japanese imperialists. It happened. During the Sino-Japanese war of 1937-45, at least 14 million Chinese died while the war produced 80-100 million refugees, more than the entire population of Japan at the time. Already impoverished, China was left destitute by a debilitating inferno of violence.

The Japanese Imperial Armed Forces cut a devastating swathe and scarred the nation. Campaigns such as the “Three Alls” — “kill all, burn all, loot all” — the awful vivisection and biological war experiments conducted by Unit 731 on POWs, and the horrific massacre at Nanjing are emblematic of Japan’s sinister modus operandi. It is no wonder that Chinese are seething about this shared past, one that Japan has done too little to acknowledge, much less atone for. But this angry remembering only began two decades ago for politically expedient reasons.

Following the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy demonstrations and bloody crackdown, the CCP began highlighting Japan’s wartime transgressions, breaking with Mao’s emphasis on an uplifting victor’s narrative. The new patriotic education campaign since the 1990s has nurtured nationalism and a collective memory of victimization that has become deeply ingrained in China, feeding a sense of feverish and vengeful indignation.

China faces numerous intractable problems, so vilifying Japan has also become a convenient distraction from the moral and ideological bankruptcy of the CCP. As Zheng Wang reminds us in “Never Forget National Humiliation” (2012), the Japan-inflicted trauma is a touchstone of national identity that bolsters the CCP’s legitimacy. The bilateral territorial rift is thus less a problem to solve than a convenient sideshow where orchestrated, patriotic outrage serves a useful political purpose. By playing the history card, the CCP slyly channels public anger away from its own undeniable shortcomings and provides an outlet for grassroots anger and frustration.

In “Wealth and Power” (2013), Orville Schell and Jonathan Delury explain how national humiliation has long been mobilized by the Chinese state to confer legitimacy and to gain wealth and power. The CCP also stokes memories of past abuses to propel a national quest to avenge, and draw strength from, collective shame. Although dwelling on victimization drives home the lessons of what happens to the weak, this provides little vision for the strong. It is also threatening, as 21st China is not weak; it needs a new narrative because harping on historical grievances is risky and constrains Beijing’s options. Righting the wrongs of the past through unilateral assertions of China’s rights that define issues in black and white terms, and non-negotiable core interests, reduces points of contention to a zero sum game. Seeking the mantle of regional leadership and coping with new domestic problems, Schell and Delury highlight why China needs to move beyond hyped patriotism — but can it?

This past year, Chinese President Xi Jinping has called on the nation to embrace a new dream, a project inspired by China’s gathering malaise, but how can he finesse changing the channel? What inspiration can he and the CCP offer beyond a prickly, glowering nationalism steeped in a degrading history?

While the CCP has moved in recent years to give the Kuomintang (KMT) its due in fighting against Japan, long suppressed because the KMT deserve most of the credit, it still tiptoes around some of the greatest tragedies inflicted on the Chinese during the 20th century. Yang Jisheng’s “Tombstone” (2012), banned in China, underscores how history is tricky for the CCP because he details how the party’s fingerprints are all over the Great Famine (1958-62), a Mao-made disaster that claimed some 40 million lives. And then there is the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), a complicated spasm of violence initiated by Mao that destroyed millions more lives. Inside China, frank appraisals of these twin traumas are gaining some traction, although the party line still prevails in the master narrative of public memory. But as Yang says, “If a country can’t face its own history, then it has no future.”

China has loads of museums commemorating Japanese atrocities and the media can be quite frenzied about how Japan remembers (and forgets), but public discourse on more recent tragedies remains circumscribed. Near Chengdu the fascinating Jianchuan Museum has an entire building devoted to the Cultural Revolution and another planned on the Great Famine. As this past is exhumed, and more deeply probed, there are new ghosts to vanquish and monsters to destroy. Inconveniently, there is much to answer for. Alas, Japan remains a handy punching bag.

But endlessly stoking victimization stirs an aggrieved and sanctimonious worldview that impedes strategic thinking and effective pursuit of national interests. Surely there is more dignity and satisfaction to be gained through reconciliation, and here the ball remains in Japan’s court. But Tokyo is unlikely to undertake such initiatives as long as Beijing signals that it is not ready to tango.

Jeff Kingston is director of Asian studies at Temple University Japan.

  • Ken5745

    I agree with the writer that “Surely there is more dignity and satisfaction to be gained through reconciliation, and here the ball remains in Japan’s court.”

    And it’s a no brainer. If Japan wishes to Improve the ‘chilly Japan-China ties’ and saves its 24% export to China, all it has to do is to respect the agreement made by Tanaka and Zhou Enlai in 1978 to ‘shelf’ the decision on the disputed islands to future generations of both nations to decide. It’s as simple as that.

    And China has announced many times that she is willing to explore for resources in the sea around the disputed islands on a 50/50 partnership with Japan.

    But Abe’s illogical stance that there is no dispute over the islands will lead to the revival of militarism in Japan, which could pave the way for another senseless war of attrition.

    Peace and prosperity are better options for Japan.

    As for the writer’s claim that the Great Famine was “a Mao-made disaster that claimed some 40 million lives”, history shows that the United States was partly to be blamed for refusing to sell wheat to China at the material time.

    How the United States could treat a WW2 ally with this sort of unconscionable behavior is a paradox but it reminds the world what a fair-weather friend Uncle Sam really is..

    • Gene Sasserky

      There is no written evidence of this “agreement” between Tanaka and Chou En Lai. Regardless, China’s diplomatic agenda in 1972 is a far cry from it’s aggressive stance towards several Asian neighbors today. The Senkakus is a small part of a greater PLAN goal to out the U.S. from the western Pacific and to take control of the entire South and East China Seas. The importance of resources concerning the Senkakus has taken a back seat to Chinese military and territorial aspirations. Not to mention that previous “sharing” agreements have been unilaterally violated by China, As for “treating a WWII ally” please get your history straight, our ally was the Republic of China. Who was attacked by and forced out of the mainland by the PRC (Communist China).

      • Ken5745

        Not True. There was a ‘shelf” agreement in 1972 and again in 1978.

        You may have missed this report from Japan Times June 5th 2013 which is paraphrased below :

        “Former chief Cabinet Secretary Hiromu Nonaka said leaders from Japan and China had agreed to shelve the territory row when the two countries normalized relations in the early 1970s.”

        “Nonaka, who led a delegation of current and former Diet members on a visit to China told reporters that “Just after the normalization of relations, I was told clearly by then-Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka that a decision was made on the normalization by shelving the Senkaku issue.”

        “As a living witness, I would like to make
        clear (what I heard),” He said.

        As for the Paracel Islands, the North Vietnamese PM already said in 1964 in a letter to China that Vietnam had no claim either historically or geographically to the Paracel. Why the change of heart today?

        China was the first nation in the world to set sail in the oceans in 1421 with 200 ships and 22,000 men and discovered the islands in the South China Sea. The Philippines only discovered the shoal in the 17 century. Enough said.

        China is not out to oust the US from the Western Pacific. As President Xi said: the Pacific is big enough for China and the US but a hegemon like Uncle Sam wants the whole box and dice for itself. That is now not possible. Face facts.

        As for who was the US’s ally in ww2. it was the Chinese people, not the war lords who may come and go. The Chinese folks trusted the Americans in a mutual front against the aggressor Japan, despite gen Joe “Vinegar Joe” Stilwel’s recalcitrance.

        And the estimated 40 million Chinese peasants needed not have starved to death in the Great Famine if the purported ‘last bastion of democracy and human rights’ had acted with compassion and civility to sell (not donate) wheat to China. With friends like who needs enemies?