The perils of forced modernity: China-Tibet, America-Iraq

About the author
Jeffrey N Wasserstrom is a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine. He writes for a wide range of academic and other periodicals.

The Chinese government's plans for the Olympic games did not include a revolt in Tibet. The immediate aftermath of the widespread protests in Tibetan- inhabited areas in mid-March 2008 - from Lhasa in the Tibetan Autonomous Region to Gansu, Qinghai and Sichuan provinces to the east - has seen intense efforts by the authorities to restore control and manage access to information. The disruption by monks at the Jokhang temple in Lhasa of a choreographed visit of foreign journalists on 27 March indicates that the strategy is not working.

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom is a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine. His most recent book is China's Brave New World-And Other Tales for Global Times (Indiana University Press, 2007), and his next will be Global Shanghai, 1850-2010 (Routledge, forthcoming).

He writes for a wide range of academic and general interest periodicals and is a founding member of a new group blog on Chinese issues, The China Beat: Blogging How the East Is Read

Beijing's worried officials will do their best to defuse the potential of these unfolding events to subvert their larger understanding of what the event in their city on 8-24 August means for China. It is notable in this respect that China has avoided mentioning the precedent of the Olympic games in Tokyo in 1964, or voicing any sense that there might be a parallel in the impact of the respective events on the respective countries' global profile. In principle, one attractive way for the Beijing authorities to think about the 2008 Olympics is that they will come to be seen as comparable to 1964. The Tokyo games - and the Osaka world Expo that followed in 1970 - globally promoted a vision of a Japan that had bounced back from a period of extremism and defeat to become a stable country with modern cities and forward-looking aspirations. These two high-profile international gatherings also symbolised the concurrent processes of economic development that would see Japan's own rise to its current status as the world's second biggest economy.

China's leaders might consider the Tokyo 1964/Beijing 2008 analogy at least privately compelling on several levels - even if their suspicion of a historic adversary (and present competitor) might make them reluctant to voice this sentiment too openly. China too has been climbing rapidly in the global economic hierarchy and wants to move still higher. It is preparing to follow its hosting of the Olympics with its own Expo - set to start in Shanghai on 1 May 2010, the country's first-ever world fair. Its own modern history has seen moments of destructive extremism (the "great leap forward" and resulting famine, for example) and moments of defeat (including the foreign occupation of Beijing in 1900 and Japanese invasions of the 1930s) that it has good reason to want to put far behind it.

The Manchukuo lens

At the same time, a very different analogy can be drawn between China in 2008 and Japan at another moment in its past (as Howard W French points out, in one of the most thoughtful and historically minded commentaries on the current crisis in Tibet; see "Beijing's claims of an ‘unwavering stand' in support of Tibet are groundless", International Herald Tribune, 20 March 2008). This alternative line of argument, however, would be much less palatable to the Chinese regime than the 1964/2008 one. Why? Because the other era in Japanese history that has lessons for China today is the 1930s - a decade that is remembered in China as one when Tokyo acted in despicably aggressive ways towards it.

Also in openDemocracy on Tibet:

Ugen, "Tibet's postal protest" (4 November 2005)

Jamyang Norbu, "Tibetan tales: old myths, new realities" (13 June 2005)

openDemocracy / Tenzin Tzundue, "Tibet vs China: a human-rights showdown" (15 August 2006)

Gabriel Lafitte, "Tibet: revolt with memories" (18 March 2008)

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, "The perils of forced modernity: China-Tibet, America-Iraq" (27 March 2008)
Howard W French's background as an experienced reporter of Africa, a continent that has been ravaged by many forms of imperialism, may inform his emphasis on a time when Japan was an imperial rather than a post-imperial power to highlight the colonialist aspects of Chinese policy in Tibet; in so doing, he evades the common trap in commentary on Tibet that Pankaj Mishra identifies in another insightful article - namely that of viewing any confrontation between the Chinese leadership and those challenging its policies through a distorting cold-war lens (see "At war with the utopia of modernity", Guardian, 22 March 2008).

For both these authors, the place to start in unravelling the Tibetan crisis is not with communist ideology or Leninist state structures, but rather by appreciating what often happens when any power justifies its control by saying that it is bestowing modernity on a backward people - a view of the Tibetans held by many everyday Chinese as well as their rulers.

Beijing insistently claims to be delivering the benefits of progress and modernity to Tibetans. The recurrent problem it faces is that (in French's words) "few indigenous people want progress ‘given' to them". This is not only because "they don't see themselves as inferior, as such patronage would require", but also because "they know of the many strings attached and of the slippery road to losing one's soul."

More specifically, French points out that the "Chinese, of all people, should understand" the outrage that colonial projects of this sort can engender. After all, they were "offered the ‘gift' of modernization by Imperial Japan under its erstwhile Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere". There are even, he points out, "eerie echoes of Japan's Manchukuo with its bogus Emperor Puyi in China's attempts to pick religious leaders on Tibetan's behalf."

The Chinese regime's official Xinhua news agency seemed to confirm the thrust of this argument by issuing a statement on 22 March that, inadvertently, buttressed the Manchukuo parallel. The piece - entitled "China Garners Broad International Support Over Tibet Riots" - provides a list of countries that had issued official declarations expressing solidarity with Beijing over its handling of Tibet; they ranged from nearby lands such as North Korea and Kyrgyzstan to distant ones such as Syria and Serbia.

Also on China's politics in openDemocracy:

Isabel Hilton, "China's freedom test" (7 September 2005)

Lung Ying-tai, "A question of civility: an open letter to Hu Jintao" (15 February 2006)

David Wall, "The plan and the party" (29 March 2006)

Christopher R Hughes, "Chinese nationalism in the global era" (18 April 2006)

Kerry Brown, "China's top fifty: the China power list" (2 April 2007)

Li Datong, "Beijing's Olympics, China's politics" (22 August 2007)

Li Datong, "Shanghai: new history, old politics" (19 September 2007)

Kerry Brown, "China's party congress: getting serious" (5 October 2007)

Li Datong, "China's modernisation: a unique path?" (28 November 2007)

Li Datong, "Xiamen: the triumph of public will?" (16 January 2008)

Kerry Brown, "Beijing's political tightrope-walk" (16 March 2008)
The list is reminiscent of the ones that the Japanese authorities and the rulers of Manchukuo circulated in the 1930s when trying to convince local and international populations that the newly formed state was widely viewed as legitimate. To distract attention from all of the statements by world leaders dismissing Puyi as a puppet of Japan, those 1930s pronouncements trotted out a list of eleven countries - Poland, El Salvador, Romania, Spain, among them - that recognised him as a legitimate ruler (on the larger Manchukuo background, see Prasenjit Duara, Sovereignty and Authenticity: Manchukuo and the East Asian Modern, Rowman & Littlefield, 2003).

But lest anyone jump to the conclusion that there is something distinctively "east Asian" about this particular ploy, it is worth remembering what George W Bush and Tony Blair did in 2003: namely, use smoke-and-mirrors talk of a broad "coalition of the willing" to encourage people to overlook the lack of United Nations support for the invasion of Iraq. It is interesting too to see how far the set of countries that lined up behind Washington in 2003 had in common with that which once viewed Puyi as a true ruler rather than just a puppet. The above-mentioned four states - Poland, El Salvador, Romania and Spain - were all there again, for example, notwithstanding the great discontinuities in their own political development across the decades.

Brothers in arms

George W Bush has belatedly expressed concern over events in Tibet in a lengthy phone conversation on 26 March with his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao. If the discussion between the two presidents is extended, one relevant topic would be the troublesome nature of historical analogies involving 1930s Japan in relation to another contemporary issue, Iraq.

Here, it was post-war Japan that was again supposed to be the key reference-point (in this case for the United States). The influential neo-conservatives who provided the Iraq adventure with ideological varnish built upon the strained but prevalent comparison of 9/11 to Pearl Harbour by arguing that the American occupation of Japan, by leading to the emergence of a grateful democratic ally to the US, provided a preview of what would happen after Saddam Hussein fell.

It is not just retrospect that undermines this perspective - for anyone who really knew their history would not have expected events on the ground to develop in this way. John Dower, the leading American historian of mid-century US-Japanese interaction, expressed such a view in various periodicals just before and during the early stages of the invasion, highlighting a host of specific ways in which the situation in Iraq differed from that in post-war Japan (see, for example, "A warning from history", Boston Review, February/March 2003).

But Dower went a step further, arguing that the best Japanese parallels for contemporary US policy and rhetoric lay in how much Bush and company seemed to have in common with the militarists who led Japan in the 1930s. As he wrote in mid-2003 in an online publication linked to the Nation: "Regime change, nation-building, creation of client states, control of strategic resources, defiance of international criticism, mobilization for ‘total war,' clash-of-civilizations rhetoric, winning hearts and minds, combating terror at home as well as abroad - all these were part and parcel of Japan's vainglorious attempt to create a new order of ‘co-existence and co-prosperity' in Asia" (see "The other Japanese occupation", TomDispatch.com, 20 June 2003).

When Bush and Hu meet in Beijing in August, the subject-matter of their conversation is more likely to be a new record in the high-jump or pole-vault than about Pu Yi's similarities to the Panchen Lama; which country heads the medals-table than parallels between American actions in Iraq and Japan's in Manchukuo.

That is a pity, since a modicum of historical self-awareness - perhaps especially among the powerful - is one of the best defences against political misjudgment. But even if the exchange between the leaders of an actual and an aspiring global power remains focused only on current affairs, they may find some common ground. Each man, thinking of a different quagmire, could commiserate with the other about how vexing it can be when people you "liberate" aren't properly grateful for what you've done for them.