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 Nanking killings).

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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