China’s persistent Japan syndrome

IAN BURUMA – The Financial Times

What if the Japanese government apologised profusely and unconditionally for all the terrible things Japan did to China during the war? What if all Japanese textbooks described those wartime atrocities – the Nanking massacre, comfort women and so on – in full? What if Japan were to build lots of museums and memorials about Japanese war crimes committed in China, Korea, and south-east Asia? And what if Japan renounced all claims to disputed islands in the China Sea? Would this stop the Chinese from throwing stones at the Japanese embassy, or molesting Japanese students, or demonstrating against Japan’s bid for United Nations Security Council membership? Probably not. These outbursts of emotional and sometimes violent nationalism in China take place partly because they are the only expression of public protest the government allows.
Similar things can happen in a democracy too, of course, as they do in South Korea. When they occur, more or less spontaneously, neither the South Korean nor the Chinese government can afford to ignore them or stop them too forcefully. Hence the odd passivity of Chinese policemen when demonstrators smashed Japanese property in Beijing.
Sometimes, however, the Chinese and, to a lesser extent, the South Korean authorities deliberately inflame anti-Japanese passions to deflect attention from their own shortcomings. Nationalism, along with capitalist development, has become the only justification for the Chinese Communist Party’s monopoly on power, and when capitalism falters nationalism must be cranked up. Ever since Deng Xiaoping opened China’s door to foreign, especially Japanese, investment, and Marxist ideology faded into insignificance, “patriotic museums” have sprouted all over China – most of them dedicated to past Japanese atrocities.
Japan’s record in the second world war is bad enough to stir up popular passions whenever they are needed. But the manipulation of xenophobia by Chinese rulers began long before the Nanking Massacre. When the Boxers, a revolutionary sect, went on a violent rampage against foreigners and westernised Chinese in 1900, they were encouraged by the Empress Dowager Zu Xi. She had to do this, because the discontent directed at foreigners was really about harsh economic conditions, for which the Chinese authorities were responsible. The Boxers hated all authority. So when foreign troops, including Japanese, put down the Boxer Rebellion, the Empress turned round and backed the foreigners.
That pattern has persisted to this day. And so has the explosive mixture in Chinese rebellions of xenophobia and anti-government protest. The Chinese resentment of Japan, too, stretches back at least as far as 1895, when the Japanese upstarts defeated the armies of the great Middle Kingdom. Even as Japan grew quickly into a world power, China lagged behind in economic development and saw its port cities come under foreign jurisdiction, while much of the country fell prey to violent warlords, and then to Japanese invaders.
One of the most famous and influential Chinese rebellions happened in May 1919, when students in Beijing demonstrated against the handover of German concessions in China to Japan. Ostensibly the so-called May 4 Movement started as an anti-Japanese demonstration. In fact, it was directed against the weak, backward and undemocratic Chinese government. The movement could have had many results. In the end, it turned out to be Mao Zedong’s revolution.
So the present government cannot but be aware of the potential dangers of allowing anti-Japanese protests to spiral out of control. It is often forgotten that student protests in China in the 1980s, culminating in Tiananmen Square in 1989, also began with riots against foreign students and “Japanese militarism”. Even as the latest anti-
Japanese demonstrations erupted in Beijing and Shanghai, tens of thousands of villagers began rioting in Zhejiang province, protesting against miserable economic and environmental conditions. Anti-Japanese demonstrations spilled over to Hong Kong this week and many more are being planned for this weekend in at least 10 Chinese cities. Chinese websites are buzzing with angry rhetoric. And the anniversary of the May 4 Movement is looming.
There is no evidence of a direct link between the rural Zhejiang protests and the anti-Japanese demonstrations elsewhere, but the very thought that such links might be possible would fill any Chinese government official who knows anything about history with dread. That is why the authorities will no doubt try to stop the demonstrations from going much further. But there is equally little doubt they will recur, no matter what the Japanese do.
The writer, professor at Bard College, New York, is author of Inventing Japan (Phoenix/Random House) and Bad Elements (Phoenix/Random House)

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