The Dangers of Patriotic Education

There it was for all to see on TV -- the ugliness of mob hate across cities in China for the stand-off on the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Frenzied rioters attacked Japanese restaurants and shops, throwing stones and setting fire to the Japanese flag. Japanese cars were overturned and burnt even though they were owned by fellow Chinese.

All the bottled anger of a repressed population was allowed to explode against Japanese assets. But it’s easy to do when schoolbooks already give the young a target. Chinese society is steeped in historic hatred of the Japanese, taught in school history books. That should have been a timely lesson for parents, teachers and government in Hong Kong in what can be triggered on the streets when distorted patriotic indoctrination seeds young minds with blind hate.

China cannot be proud of these events. The riots had the tacit approval of the authorities for ‘righteous anger’. For a society as forcibly policed as China, such a rare release of mass misbehavior can be intoxicating. Allowing the genie out of the bottle holds unpredictable consequences for the party as the stresses of the rural-urban divide, widening rich-poor gap, disenfranchisement of villagers, rampant official corruption, police brutality and environmental devastation take its toll.

40th anniversary of relations may be silent

The issue of the islands, controlled by Japan as the Senkakus but claimed by China as the Diaoyus, is rapidly nose-diving bilateral diplomatic relations. Commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the normalization of relations following President Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing, seems to be in deep freeze as both sides contend with heightened domestic nationalism ahead of major leadership changes in China and elections in Japan. Neither side wants to be accused of being soft.

China has had a problematic relationship with Japan from the pre-WWII invasion of Manchuria, the callous Nanjing Massacre of 300,000 civilians and the Korean War conducted by America from massive air and naval bases in Okinawa. Japan has been a disturbing factor in the ambivalent China-America relationship. Japan is a major irritant to China for its refusal to atone for war crimes.

Without its bases in Japan, America would not be as omnipresent in the growing maritime disputes of the East China Sea and the Spratlys. It constrains an increasingly assertive China pursuing undersea oilfields and access to rich fishing grounds. It facilitates the US’s ‘pivot’ f its Pacific strategy and for the Asean nations to try to contest China’s bullying.

Japan has still not fully accepted responsibility for its military misadventures of WWII. Japan’s own school textbooks do not face up to its full culpability. No real remorse has been expressed for war crimes – in unlike post-WWII Germany, which had the evil of Nazism and Hitler’s genocide of the Jews burnt into its conscience. German society has moved on. Japan is still stuck in denial of comfort women and the Nanjing Massacre.

Brown Shirts, Black Shirts, Red Guards

Totalitarian regimes with dodgy legitimacy use young children to embed ‘patriotic’ instruction. Young minds are open, trusting and willing to be led. They have boundless energy and enthusiasm which can be manipulated. Youth are the foundation to construct the next ‘great society’ to fit the twisted megalomania of the day.

Fascism in Italy and Germany after WWI advocated authoritarian single-party rule as the only solution for rapid socio-economic reconstruction of war-ravaged economies and to restore national pride.

State-sponsored movements, subsidized leisure outlets, a strong national identity and clearly defined gender roles attracted youth and gave them an alternative allegiance to the traditional authority of parents, school and church. Loyalty to party, leader and nation was above all else.

Hitler’s Brown Shirts and Mussolini’s Black Shirts both had very tightly controlled youth recruitment, training and loyalty rituals to ensure supremacy of the leader and blind obedience. They were used to attack and intimidate ‘enemies of the State’ and disrupt the Old Order. The single-minded focus to ‘educate’ youth was to ensure loyalty to the Nazi State for the Third Reich to last a thousand years.

“Whoever has the youth has the future” was Hitler’s mantra. This was a lesson not lost on the communist dictatorships which followed.

An aging Chairman Mao, paranoic about internal plots to replace him, mobilized Red Guard units across China to attack his ‘enemies’ within the party and to correct the ‘bourgeois’ misdirection of society. The traditional roles of authority represented by parents, teachers, doctors, party elders and universities were demolished on a relentless mass renewal of revolutionary zeal.

The direct ‘approval’ of the chairman over the heads of the existing political machinery became the license for roving youth groups to attack and destroy people and institutions in furtherance of the ‘Four Clean-ups’ -- to cleanse politics, the economy, party organization and ideology.

Hong Kong has good reason to review the introduction of Communist Party-style national education into its school system. Although in the face of persistent mass protests chief executive Leung Chun-ying withdrew compulsory national education for schools by 2015, parents, teachers and students cannot rest assured that it will not re-emerge in some other form. Administrative coercion of principals and teachers away from public glare, is ever present.