Commentary | COUNTERPOINT

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.