Ross Terrill on China’s Revisionist Histories

I’ve avoided weighing in on the heavyweight contenders in the latest round of Apology Oneupmanship. But China expert Ross Terrill’s rather sharp but patronizing column in The Australian of 22 April seems an appropriate time to take public notice. Some samples:

Folk in the People’s Republic were taught to love the Soviet Union and then to hate it. India was esteemed in the 1950s and vilified in the ’60s. Vietnam was “as close as lips and teeth” in the ’60s yet invaded by Chinese armies in 1979. When Japanese prime minister Kakuei Tanaka tried to apologise directly to Mao for World War II in 1972, Mao brushed him off, saying the “help” provided by Japan’s invasion of China made possible the Communist victory in 1949….

On textbooks, a projection identification occurs. Dynastic regimes in East Asia all viewed history as the province of state orthodoxy. China and Vietnam, putting Leninist dress on the skeleton of traditional autocracy, still do. Japan and Taiwan, as democracies, do not.

No book of any kind attacking the Communist Party’s monopoly of power in China has been published in China in the 56 years of the PRC. Some of the most trenchant books anywhere in the world on Japanese war atrocities have been written, published, and widely read in Japan. Beijing seems to think that because its textbooks jump to government policy, Japan’s do too. But they do not. In Japan, unlike in China, there are government-sponsored textbooks as well as independent ones….

The main text for middle-school history in China devotes nine chapters to Japan’s aggression against China in the 19th and 20th centuries, but does not mention China’s invasion of Japan under the Yuan Dynasty. (Vietnam comes off even worse than Japan. Nothing is said of the Han Dynasty’s conquest of Vietnam or of China’s 1000-year colonisation of the country.)

China has enjoyed a good run in relations with Japan and reaped economic benefit. The very real horror of war is one reason and the skilful political theatre practised by Beijing is another. But the mood in Japan toward China has changed and Beijing may be miscalculating. China will certainly pull back from the brink of a real rupture; it has too much to lose. But it is not certain that Tokyo will lie down and take any more abuse, vandalism, and Chinese distortions of history.

Among bloggers, China-based Andrés Gentry weighed in on 13 April with a long, perceptive, and well-informed (about China) essay. A sample:

It is especially galling for Wen Jiabao (of all people) to talk about the need “to face up to history squarely”. Why do you ask? Let’s look at this photo [q.v.] and guess when it was taken.

Still trying to place the date? Let me help you: May 19, 1989, the day Zhao Ziyang went down to Tiananmen Square and begged the students to leave because the decision had been made to use the PLA to seize control of the capitol. And who would that be standing behind Zhao? Why, Wen Jiabao of course!

It is risible in the extreme for a man who went down to Tiananmen to beg students to leave, who then spent the next few years rehabilitating himself by essentially renouncing himself, and who thereby achieved one of the top positions in the country, to be talking about “facing up to history squarely”. This sort of personal history, shall we say, affects his credibility on the issue.

Unlike The Australian, Andrés allows comments online, and about half his commentators take him to task for letting Japan off too lightly. Here’s a bit of one that resonated with me.

As a Taiwanese American who still have family living under the shadow of mainland China, I’d like to agree with you wholeheartedly on your condemnation of the Chinese “communist” government. But in your haste to condemn the Chinese government, you let the Japanese off the hook much too easily….

By the way, I love Japanese culture, language, food and I love my Japanese friends. Taiwanese people are famous for that. The Japanese occupation of Taiwan was relatively gentle, certainly compared to the “white terror” era. I have no desire to hate them. But I will not overlook any attempts to revise history.

It’s interesting that China specialists tend to come down harder on China, while Japan specialists tend to come down harder on Japan. One of the best among the latter is K. M. Lawson’s Muninn, who offers, among a wealth of other postings: a compilation of Japan’s apologies to China, Japan’s apologies to Korea, and editorials in the Yomiuri and Asahi newspapers in Japan.

My own feeling is that demands for apologies are driven by nationalist oneupmanship, but that the historical record is not something to be whitewashed, whether by nations, peoples, religions, or secular ideologies. My impression is that every single state has something to apologize for, whether to others or to its own citizens. So here’s my multilateral solution.

Let the United Nations General Assembly devote the next 52 weeks to apologies by the governments of every member state that claims any historical antecedents. Week 1 will be devoted to apologies by states with antecedents in the 20th century (the deadliest century in history). From Albania to Zambia, everyone has something to apologize for, even though Andorra and Bhutan may have to think a bit harder than most. Week 2 will be devoted to states with antecedents in the 19th century, week 3 to states with antecedents in the 18th century, and so on. By week 40 or so, the mea culpas would be coming almost exclusively from China, Egypt, Greece, India, Iran, Iraq, Korea, and Turkey. Well, you know, civilization is all their fault.

UPDATE: A Chinese lawyer adds more in an op-ed to the New York Times on 28 April (via Simon World).

We Chinese are outraged by Japan’s World War II crimes – the forcing of Chinese into sexual slavery as “comfort women,” the 1937 massacre of unarmed civilians in Nanking, and the experiments in biological warfare. Our indignation redoubles when the Japanese distort or paper over this record in their museums and their textbooks. But if we look honestly at ourselves – at the massacres and invasions strewn through Chinese history, or just at the suppression of protesters in recent times – and if we compare the behavior of the Japanese military with that of our own soldiers, there is not much to distinguish China from Japan.

This comparison haunts me. When I think of the forced labor in Japanese prison camps, I am reminded of forced labor camps in China, and also of the Chinese miners who lose their lives when forced to re-enter mines that everyone knows are unsafe. Are the rights of China’s poor today really so much better protected than those of the wretched “colonized slaves” during the Japanese occupation? There was the Nanking massacre, but was not the murder of unarmed citizens in Beijing 16 years ago also a massacre? Is Japan’s clumsy effort to cover up history in its textbooks any worse than the gaping omissions and biased blather in Chinese textbooks?

China’s textbooks omit the story of how the Great Leap Forward of the late 1950’s was actually the disastrous failure of a harebrained economic scheme by Mao that led to the starvation of 20 million to 50 million rural Chinese. No one really knows the numbers. Nor do we know how many were killed in the campaigns to suppress “counterrevolutionaries” during the 1950’s, in the Cultural Revolution during the 1960’s, or even in the Beijing massacre of 1989. Yet we hold Japan firmly responsible for 300,000 deaths at Nanking. Does our confidence with numbers depend on who did the killing?

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