Click to see pictures from my visit to Harbin and of the Unit 731 HQ
The rest is history
Published: January 21 2005
Roughly 20 miles from Harbin, in northeastern China, are the remains of a huge walled compound, equipped with prison cells, operating theatres, barracks, incinerators and even a private airport, where Japanese army doctors belonging to Unit 731 performed mostly fatal medical experiments on Chinese, Korean and Russian prisoners during the second world war. In fact, nothing remains except parts of the incinerator and the main office building; the rest was destroyed by the Japanese before their defeat in 1945.
The office now houses one of many new museums in China aimed at displaying atrocities inflicted by the Japanese on the Chinese. Much care and money has gone into these museums. Most were built during the past 10 years or so, and more are on the way in this anniversary year of the end of the “anti-Japanese war”, as the Chinese call it. They are a peculiar mixture of sacred memorial sites, emphasising Chinese “martyrdom”, and chambers of horror. The architecture often shows the influence of Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish museum in Berlin, though without anything like his artistic refinement – a generic memorial style of jagged edges and broken spaces.
I spent my Christmas Day in the Harbin museum, examining various atrocities recreated in tableaux vivants made of stone or wax. There you can see how the victims were subjected to freezing experiments, or vivisected while still alive, or injected with fatal germs, or attacked with bombs containing diseased rats or fleas. One such scene, of villagers dying horribly of typhus, is accompanied by the amplified sounds of moaning and screaming.
The point of all this is made clear in texts written on the walls (accompanied in one such museum in Shenyang by eyes crying tears of blood): the Chinese people, with 5,000 years of civilisation, must never again be humiliated by foreign aggressors. Only a great and strong nation will guarantee the survival of the Chinese race. Ever greater national strength will emerge from the blood of the martyrs of Japanese militarism. This is what is known in China as “patriotic education”. And the museum in Harbin is officially designated a “site of patriotic education”.
Such patriotism, based on a sense of collective victimhood and a resolve to be a supreme survivor among nations, has come to replace Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought as the official ideology of the People’s Republic of China. We will no doubt hear more of it in this anniversary year. Chinese government leaders are adept at using Japanese war guilt as leverage in Sino-Japanese diplomacy. One of the main issues dividing the two nations is the fact that Japan’s prime minister Junichiro Koizumi pays his respects at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, where the souls of those who have died for their emperor (including convicted war criminals) are worshipped. When Japan protested against a recent sortie by a Chinese submarine in Japanese waters, the Chinese once again brought up the issue of Yasukuni.
Koreans, both in the south and the north, are as prone as the Chinese to define their national identities in terms of Japanese aggression. The legitimacy of the Kim dynasty in the North rests on the largely mythical role played by Kim Il-sung as an anti-Japanese resistance hero. In the South, much of the patriotic museum near Seoul, built under the last military regime in the 1980s, is given over to the same kind of tableaux one sees in China, depicting demonic Japanese and martyred Koreans. The message is similar too: to survive, Koreans must be disciplined and strong.
Perhaps Koizumi should be more sensitive to the feelings of his country’s former victims, as Japan’s liberal press often points out. Certainly, the crimes of the past – any country’s past – should not be forgotten. But there is, nonetheless, something disturbing about east Asian patriotic ideology, especially in China. That the truth of Chinese butchery of its own citizens is still suppressed, while anti-Japanese feelings are continually stoked, smacks of self-serving hypocrisy. Many more Chinese died at the hands of Chairman Mao than at the hands of the Imperial Japanese Army.
But there is something else too. Patriotic education is full of a type of nationalism, born in Europe and transplanted, often through Japan, to China and Korea, which has had lethal consequences: ethnic nationalism combined with social Darwinism. It is the struggle for survival of the fittest nations and races. The weak must perish. This ruthless notion was harnessed to the cause of American conquest and late European imperialism. First world war propaganda, particularly in Germany, was soaked in it. Nazi anti-Semitism, and the resulting genocide, was an extreme version. And it drove the Japanese conquistadors in China and Korea in the first half of the 20th century. As the superior race in Asia, so the Japanese were told, it was their duty to invigorate the weaker races of Asia with a firm crack of the imperial whip.
Now the Chinese are being told that only discipline, vigilance and ever greater national strength will save China from future humiliations. Civic patriotism of the French republican or traditional US kind has no place in an authoritarian system such as that of the People’s Republic of China, let alone the vague post-national idealism of the European Union. Japan’s official pacifism, which is fast crumbling anyway, certainly has little appeal. Ideologically, the PRC, like North Korea, and to a much lesser extent South Korea, is firmly stuck in the late 19th century, when Darwinist ideas made their first impression.
The early Social Darwinists in China, Japan and Korea were modernists. Many thought of themselves as liberals who wished to reform their deeply traditional societies along western lines. The first republican leader of China, Sun Yat-sen, was an active promoter of minzu zhuyi, or ethnic nationalism. He was influenced by Japanese thinkers who called it minzokushugi. And they, in turn, were strongly influenced by Darwin and Spenser. Even though the Chinese revolt against the Qing dynasty that had ruled China for centuries had a strong ethnic component (Han Chinese against Manchus), the traditional idea of China was less one of ethnicity than of language and civilisation. The modern nation-state was essentially a product of the 19th century, and the model was western.
Western influence on the non-western world in the past 200 years has been partly about an ideological struggle whose echoes can still be heard today, not least in the Middle East. Should modern nationhood be built on blood and soil, or on a common sense of citizenship? French or Anglo-Saxon liberal democracy, or Germanic-Russian authoritarianism? Both models have had their ups and downs, but the latter tended to win in East Asia, at least until a few decades ago. It is still winning in China. And one of the reasons is Japan’s history of aggression.
When the then prime minister of Japan, Tanaka Kakuei, first met Chairman Mao in 1972, the chairman allegedly thanked the Japanese leader warmly, for, as he put it, without the Japanese war communism would have been defeated. He was right, of course. But post-Mao, Chinese nationalism owes just as much to the Japanese. And there are important lessons to be drawn from this in the light of what is happening in Iraq today.
During the Meiji Period in the late 19th century, Japan was an inspiration for Asian reformers. After its own revolution in the 1860s, Japan became a model of westernised modernity. Liberalism and Social Darwinism often went together. One of the great Japanese free-thinkers of the 19th century, Fukuzawa Yukichi, was obsessed with the idea of national vigour. He was a keen advocate of civil liberties, but also convinced that Japanese should marry westerners and eat more meat to strengthen the Japanese physique and improve the national gene pool. Liang Qichao, a leading Chinese reformer, received much of his knowledge of the west from Fukuzawa and other Japanese intellectuals. But his brand of Social Darwinism was more authoritarian. He believed that “freedom means freedom for the group, not for the individual”. To avoid being enslaved by other races, he argued, one should be a slave of one’s own.
This deeply illiberal notion also informed Mao’s brand of Leninist nationalism. Japan’s relative success, until the ultra-nationalists took over in the 1930s, in building liberal institutions, should have served the cause of Asian democracy. Instead, however, the Japanese thought they should impose their brand of modernity on other Asians, without democracy. Japanese military imperialism owed almost nothing to liberal ideas and a great deal to the most authoritarian version of Social Darwinism.
Manchuria was turned into a Japanese puppet state where the Japanese built the world’s most modern railways, fine hotels, huge industrial plants, excellent hospitals and an efficient bureaucracy, all in the name of Asian modernisation. In the official propaganda, Japanese ethnic nationalism made way for Asian nationalism. This had some appeal among the Chinese elite, but failed to convince most people. The Japanese then tried to conquer the rest of China by force, adopting an air of racial and cultural superiority that was deeply humiliating to the Chinese.
Ethnic nationalism played an even greater role in Korea. Koreans, like the Taiwanese but unlike the Chinese, were made subjects of the Japanese emperor, forced to adopt Japanese names and forbidden from using their own language. Since the “pure” Japanese were still deemed to be superior, Koreans and Taiwanese were made to feel like inferior Japanese subjects. In spite of this humiliation, many members of the Korean and Taiwanese elites collaborated with their Japanese masters, thinking this was the quickest route to national strength and modernisation.
Although Japan’s brutal attempt at modernist imperialism failed, much of its propaganda stuck. The Chinese and Koreans were more than ever convinced that national survival depended on ethnic vigour and national strength, based on authoritarian institutions. Following the line of Liang Qichao, they would be slaves to their own leaders, so as never to be slaves of foreigners. This is why the ideological vacuum left by the demise of Maoism (though not of the Communist Party) was filled so quickly by ethnic nationalism. And it also explains why the issue of Taiwan remains explosive.
From the point of view of blood-and-soil nationalism, Taiwanese independence is an abomination, a reminder of the humiliation of Japanese imperialism. But the Taiwanese, especially those whose ancestors left the Chinese mainland many centuries ago, see things differently. They are democrats now. The fact that they speak Chinese is no reason for them to submit to an authoritarian government on the Chinese mainland.
The South Koreans are now democrats too. It is surely no coincidence that with more open institutions, there is less demonisation of Japan. In fact, relations with Japan have rarely been better. The target of historical opprobrium has shifted from Japan itself to the former Korean collaborators, who are officially denounced as traitors to the Korean people. To make this stick, a law has been drafted to drop the term “pro-Japanese” in the official description of these villains. They are traitors, pure and simple. This may be just a populist move by an “anti-elitist” government, but the proposal for such a peculiar law shows the strength of feeling about the recent past.
Authoritarian mobilisation in the name of Darwinian war can unleash huge energies among peoples, to be sure. Perhaps the extraordinary spurts of economic growth in South Korea and China could not have happened without the fierce patriotism and rigid discipline that goes with it. But such energies can also be turned to darker causes, such as foreign conquest. East Asia is not the only part of the world where this 19th-century struggle is still being waged, and it behoves us, who live in the west, to pay attention, not least because we started it all.