Discover more from Asia Sentinel
China’s Need for an Eternal Enemy
In what is being called a breakthrough in much of the world’s press, Shinzo Abe was received relatively warmly in Beijing in his first visit outside Japan as the country’s newly installed prime minister. Driven together to some extent by North Korea’s stunning decision Monday to defy the world and test an atomic weapon, the two countries issued a joint declaration saying bilateral relations are one of the most important diplomatic priorities for both countries.
But there are real questions where China and Japan go from here. Japanese prime ministers come and go and China eyes the new one with suspicion. Asia’s complicated relationships with the world’s second-biggest economy have continued to evolve – everywhere but in China, at least until now. The thaw in relations that Abe seeks is a reversal of suspicions going clear back to Japan’s savage invasion in the 1930s.
The fact is that since it was founded in 1921, the Communist Party of China has maintained hatred of Japan as an unwavering policy, regardless of what any Japanese
government says or does. This is based only partly on the events of the Japanese invasion. The Communist Part also needs an enemy, an object for the anger of the people that the government can turn away from itself. In the early years of the Communist government, this enemy was the capitalist class, the intellectuals, the Nationalists on Taiwan and the Americans. But these are no longer enemies. Japan remains and will remain as number one enemy, so Abe’s visit is likely to account for little.
But it will be important to first see if the television programs change. Surf mainland Chinese channels any evening and you will invariably find a Japanese officer with a Hitlerite moustache, impeccably dressed in a khaki uniform with red lapels and speaking perfect Mandarin, interrogating a heroic Communist guerrilla with ruffled hair and a torn shirt, or coming on to a pretty young woman, probably also a party member, trying to resist his sexual advances.
Chinese schoolchildren are still being reared on images of the Nanjing massacre, in which an estimated 300,000 Chinese died – 69 years ago, in 1937. They are fed a steady diet of the bombing of civilians in the wartime capital of Chongqing, reinforcing with films and television dramas an image of Japan as a country unchanged since 1945, one whose economic modernization masks a militarism held in check only by the U.S. forces stationed there.
Nor is it just governance. The media lose no opportunity to attack defects, real or suspected, in Japanese products – from Toshiba laptops to the Mitsubishi Pajero and, most recently, SKII cosmetics -- with the subtext that the racist Japanese export their best goods to Europe and North America and lower-quality ones to China and other Asian countries.
Newspaper editors know they will receive only praise if they run an anti-Japanese story. Occasionally, the government allows this hatred to show itself in demonstrations, as in April last year, when thousands in Shanghai, Beijing and other cities stoned Japanese diplomatic property and businesses.
But, like other countries, China chooses which parts of history to report.
The most glaring omission is Japan’s contribution to China’s modernization since diplomatic relations were normalized in September 1972. Since then, it has provided long-term, low-interest loans totaling more than 3.1 trillion yen, more than the assistance China has received from all other countries put together.
This money has been used to build 5,200 kilometres of railway, including that from Beijing to Qinhuangdao, one of China’s biggest coal and commodities ports, 60 berths able to handle ships of 10,000 tonnes or more, power stations and fertilizer plants.
In addition, it provided 31 billion yen for Baoshan, China’s most modern steel factory, 40 billion yen toward construction of Shanghai’s Pudong airport and 30 billion for the airport at Beijing.
The Sino-Japanese Friendship Hospital in Beijing, also built with aid money, treats 3,000 patients a day. But few Chinese are aware of this generosity, since it is scarcely reported by the media. When the new Beijing airport opened, the Japanese ambassador noticed that the plaque made no mention of his country’s contribution. Enraged, he demanded that a new plaque be carved – and China acceded to his request.
These loans are a form of war compensation. After World War II, neither President Chiang Kai-shek nor the new Communist government demanded compensation from Japan, which was a shrewd decision since it has resulted in payments that have continued for more than 30 years.
“I wish China would name a figure, any figure, US$5 billion or US$10 billion,” said one exasperated Japanese diplomat in Beijing in the 1980s. “We pay the money and, from then on, China could no longer keep talking of the war.”
He did not get his wish. Japan is still paying and China is still talking of the war.
China differs from other countries occupied by Japan during World War II, especially those in southeast Asia, which distinguish between Japan before and after 1945. They share China’s outrage at Japan’s wartime atrocities but see its contribution since 1945 as positive, in providing financial aid, technical assistance and direct investment and as a major market for their products.
The Japanese defeat of the French, British and Dutch armies in Southeast Asia was instrumental in helping these countries win their independence after the war. The country that contrasts most sharply with the mainland is Taiwan, occupied longest by Japan, from 1895-1945, where many regard this 50 years as the golden period in its history.
“The Japanese colonial government made enormous contributions in public health, building roads, railways, ports, dams and power systems and developing our agriculture, especially rice and sugar, introducing new strains and technology,” said Hsu Wen-long, president of Chi Mei, a major industrial conglomerate with interests in food, electronics and plastics.
”By 1943, 71 percent of Taiwan children were in school, one of the highest levels in the world. Britain and Spain never did anything like this in their colonies. Just before the end of World War II, Taiwan had per-capita GDP of US$90, just behind Japan with US$100, while that of the mainland was below US$30.”
The Japanese occupation paved the way for the independence of Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia, he says, but sadly for Taiwan, led to its reoccupation by China. Only an alliance between the U.S., Japan and Taiwan can preserve the peace of Asia for the next 30-50 years, with the hope that the political system in China will change and that Beijing will not use its nuclear bomb to threaten its neighbours, he adds.
The anti-Japanese policy of the Communist Party was born at its creation in July 1921, when Japan was the most aggressive of the imperialist powers in China and some of its businesses in Shanghai the object of union action, backed by the party. During the war, Communist guerrillas fought the Japanese, although the bulk of the fighting -- and the losses – were born by the Nationalist armies. After his army’s defeat in 1949, Chiang Kai-shek invited Japanese officers to Taiwan to advise how to mobilize the island for a re-conquest of the mainland. His decision not to ask for reparations came from his desire to please his most important ally, the U.S., which feared that poverty in Japan
would bring the Communists to power.
In line with the U.S., Japan recognized the Republic of China until it switched to Beijing on September 29, 1972. But being one of the earliest major countries to recognize Beijing did not bring the diplomatic reward that it hoped for. The U.S. and South Korea, Beijing’s enemies in the Cold War whom it fought in Korea, recognized it later and have developed warm relations.
Despite US$70 billion in foreign investment, bilateral trade that has hit a record level for seven years in a row and more than 100,000 of its nationals living in China, Japan remains the Cinderella at the party. Beijing’s need for an enemy, an object toward which it can direct public anger and discontent, especially when things become
difficult at home, is too great. The xenophobic behaviour of the Japanese right wing – a small minority – makes perfect front-page pictures for the mainland media.
Yuji Kumamaru, Japan’s consul in Shanghai, is one victim of this war. He lives in a sumptuous four-storey villa on Huaihai Road, formerly Avenue Joffre in the French Concession, one of the city’s most desirable addresses.
The large garden, with a view of Shanghai’s new library, offers a perfect venue for entertaining Chinese friends. Kumamaru and his wife both speak fluent Mandarin.
But few Chinese dare to come except on official business. They know the home and garden are closely watched and that they must have a good explanation for any visit.
“That is how it is in Communist countries,” Mrs Kumamaru said. “It was easier in New York. We had normal friends there.”