Some history lessons for China
SCMP April 18, 2005
Few things can be more hypocritical than for senior members of the Communist
Party to lecture Japan about owning up to history. The rant, and the officially
sanctioned protests, have been a crude attempt to thwart Japan's goal of becoming
a permanent UN Security Council member. China is displaying a world view which
is too Sino-centric to be palatable to much of Asia.
The party may never have gone to the same extent as Russia's Joseph
Stalin in rewriting history, but it still has a formidable record
not merely of air-brushing
away inconvenient facts and people, but of filling the gaps with invention.
There is no need to remind readers how the party deals with the Great Leap
Forward, the famines, the Cultural Revolution or the Tiananmen "incident" (note
the similarity to the Japanese use of the word "incident" for its
There is nothing unusual in nations being reluctant to dwell on the
darker chapters of their history. School textbooks, in particular,
like to present children with an idealised version of their antecedents,
as well as their parents. Likewise, the dead in past wars are given
a degree of respect in memorials and cemeteries as a group, however
brutal and murderous some individuals may have been.
So, why is it that China is not making a fuss about British textbooks,
which often gloss over the more unpleasant bits of imperial expansion
- the Opium wars in particular. Was it too long ago? Then, why are
the Kenyans not berating the British for a brutal campaign against
the Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s? Britain may not have a Yasukuni
Shrine, but it has innumerable monuments to imperial war dead which
are visited by prime ministers and royalty alike. War crimes are committed
by victors as well as vanquished.
Or look elsewhere. How many US textbooks describe the occupation of
the Philippines as an "intervention" during the Spanish-American
war, rather than as an invasion which was accompanied by mass killings
of Filipinos? Australian textbooks, at least until very recently, preferred
to forget massacres of Aborigines. And Prime Minister John Howard still
declines to apologise - perhaps rightly on the grounds that apologising
for one's ancestors' actions is meaningless.
It is not just China that is being hypocritical and self-serving in
making a huge issue of events of nearly 70 years ago. South Koreans
are being almost equally determined to forget aspects of their history
in order to demonise the Japanese. The hero of the nation's economic
miracle is none other than a former officer in the Japanese imperial
army of occupation in Manchuria - the late president, Park Chung-hee.
In the Philippines during Japanese occupation, Korean garrison troops
were regarded as much more brutal than their Japanese counterparts.
Of course, the Japanese imperialists behaved with great cruelty, especially
in mainland China. (Their rule of Taiwan was relatively benign, and
brought education infrastructure and better governance than the pre-1949
Kuomintang). But in much of the rest of Asia, they are viewed from
a different perspective - as the force which broke the back of western
imperialism. Nationalist leaders in Thailand, Myanmar, the Philippines
and Indonesia all co-operated. With Japanese help, Indian hero Subhas
Chandra Bose raised an army to fight the British.
Unfortunately it is the Communist Party which has chosen not to study
or learn from history, but to distort it for propaganda. Premier Wen
Jiabao will not be much appreciated in most of Asia if China's posture
prevents security council reform, depriving not only Japan but also
India, Brazil and Germany of a permanent presence. Throwing stones
against Japan should not be allowed to cover up the fact that China
is trying to defend a very privileged position: the only Asian and
the only developing country not only with a permanent seat, but also
with a veto. Is the rest of Asia happy with that?
China has swallowed too much of the party's jingoistic propaganda
for its own long-term good. A backward-looking China is holding up
an Asia which needs to focus on future potential, not past grievances.
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