Playing at ‘Rage,’ China Dramatizes Its Rise

LETTER FROM ASIA
By HOWARD W. FRENCH
Published: April 21, 2005 – Copyright The New York Times
SHANGHAI, April 19 – The banners had been carefully printed, the slogans memorized, and the students and young unleashed onto the streets of China’s largest, most sophisticated city, where they were to speak sacred truths and make the enemies of the people tremble.
Chinese today have little experience of mass organized protests, so when the Government tolerated – some would say encouraged – a huge anti-Japanese demonstration here that flirted with turning into a riot over the weekend, for many it bore echoes of the mass manipulation of students of another era, the Cultural Revolution.
For hours on Saturday, thousands of Chinese, from teenagers to people in their 30’s, lay siege to the Japanese consulate in this city, smashing its windows and defacing its walls with a copious rain of rocks and bottles. But for all the expressions of anger against Japan by people far too young to have memories of China’s brutal subjugation by its neighbor, at its most basic level this was a festival of runaway nationalism, of a government-nurtured Chinese-ness.
Declaring themselves to be all one people, the demonstrators proclaimed their love of the police who escorted them as they marched to the consulate, smashing Japanese shops along the way. Banners extolled Chinese greatness, in contrast to little Japan, chanters called for their homeland to stand tall, and talk was dominated by Chinese “feelings,” a word repeated over and over, as if no other feelings counted.
Revealingly, people who had lived through the real Cultural Revolution, not the sanitized one taught in China’s history books, watched from the sidelines with looks of amazement and worry. They were old enough to remember just how badly things can go when intoxication is the order of the day, and laws are swept aside by feelings.
“I watched the police cars escorting the demonstrators and felt this all looked familiar, like an official event in the Cultural Revolution, but those drew bigger crowds and were more emotional,” said Zhu Xueqin, a historian at Shanghai University who emerged from a public library to watch the march go by. “I observed it as a bystander, and the people observing around me looked indifferent, seemingly full of reservations.”
Shanghai is the most dazzling symbol of a China that has changed so much since the Cultural Revolution as to be almost unrecognizable. But in some important ways, most notably the government’s will to control information and through it people’s minds, the events of the weekend here and their aftermath show that this country has barely changed at all.
The Maoist slogans of 40 years ago have been replaced by anti-Japanese watchwords, and then as now, few of those caught up in the excitement paused to examine the relationship of today’s slogans to the truth. Here were students mouthing such claims as “Japan has never apologized to China,” or “Japanese textbooks whitewash history.” Many Japanese textbooks have recently de-emphasized atrocities committed in China, and some have been widely distributed. But in China, the most tendentious of them is the one cited as a representative sample, although it is used by less than 1 percent of Japanese schools.
Others said, trembling with conviction, that Japan wants to keep China down, or even instigate the country’s breakup. Never mind that for over two decades, Japan has been a leading source of development assistance for China – to the tune of $30 billion in low interest loans – helping build everything from Shanghai’s futuristic airport to expensive highway and water systems in the country’s vast, impoverished west.
Few in the Chinese crowds, including many educated in the country’s best schools, seemed aware of facts like those, or of any other side to the story save what could be fit into the dichotomy of a China that is essentially good and a Japan that is predatory, evil, conniving or, in a word heard over and over, “disgusting.”
Like anything that involves information in China, this ignorance seems the result of careful planning. Since diplomatic relations between the two countries were normalized in 1972, for example, Japanese officials have apologized numerous times to China for the suffering their country inflicted in the 20th century. In 1995 on the 50th anniversary of the war’s end, for example, Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama spoke of the ” tremendous damage and suffering” his country had caused, adding, “I regard, in a spirit of humanity, these irrefutable facts of history, and express here once again my feelings of deep remorse and state my heartfelt apology.”
But China’s state-controlled media have usually focused on finding fault with each Japanese pronouncement, sustaining the belief that Japan has indeed never apologized.
The largest question, perhaps, is why China would so carefully sustain anger at Japan.
One possibility is that in recent years, the legitimacy of China’s leadership has rested on few things so much as the idea of inevitability – a destined ascension of the country to prosperous world-power status and a return to the unquestioned pre-eminence in the East that it enjoyed before the 20th century. In this picture there is little room for Japan, a country that has derailed China’s ambitions before, and suddenly seems unwilling to fade.
This could help explain China’s reactions to Tokyo’s bid for a United Nations Security Council seat and discussions under way in Japan about revising the country’s so-called peace constitution, as well as Chinese nervousness about Taiwan, which Japan, together with the United States, recently called a joint security concern.
By midweek, signs were multiplying that China’s leaders were rethinking their confrontation with Japan, at least at the level of public relations. With the ugliness toward their neighbor threatening a loss of international sympathy on other issues, China first reportedly made a quiet offer to repair Japan’s damaged consulate, and on Tuesday urged an end to demonstrations.
Left aside in the weekend’s atmospherics in the effort to dispel them was the question of whether China has done a better job teaching history than its neighbor. In the West, it is accepted as fact that more Chinese were killed by the policies of Mao Zedong than by the Japanese, including many by summary execution and other atrocities that are glossed over in Chinese textbooks. In those books, Mao is still treated with reverence.
China also claims never to have seized territory from a neighbor, but China attacked India by surprise in 1962 and the details of other campaigns, from Korea and Xinjiang in the north to Vietnam and Tibet in the country’s south and west, are also absent from textbooks.
More remarkable than any glance at the receding past, however, was the way news of the anti-Japanese demonstrations has been treated in China in the here and now. Chinese authorities televised notices that the protests had not been approved on the eve of Saturday’s anti-Japanese demonstration, which served as much as anything else as an announcement of the event. The news the next day avoided all mention of disorder. Similarly there were no images of young people pelting the Japanese consulate at their leisure, within arm’s reach of paramilitary police.
The seeming contradictions in all of this were not lost on all Chinese, however. Discussions have raged all week on the Internet, with many questioning their countrymen’s behavior and the government’s permissiveness toward anti-Japanese violence. “How shameful is it that to release our emotions we damaged the property of our countrymen and bullied the weak,” wrote one forum participant? “You call yourselves patriotic? Patriotic what?”

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