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China and Japan: a textbook argument

Isabel Hilton
19 April 2005

The irony inherent in China’s complaint about historical inaccuracies in Japanese school textbooks is impossible to miss. Japan’s democracy has made possible open debate about its school textbooks’ distortions and omissions, symbolised by the long campaign of activists like Saburo Ienaga. As a result, Japan’s textbooks have become relatively honest. By contrast, Japan’s main accusers, South Korea and especially China, have little to be proud of in their own school libraries.

All three countries are subject to rising nationalist tensions as the geopolitics of the region shift. In Japan, the current revival of nationalist sentiment has entailed a slight retreat in acknowledging the worst of its imperial forces’ second world war atrocities. Rightwing pressure has produced revisions to one authorised textbook that have the effect of evading some of the horrors of its 1941-45 war record: slave labour, forced prostitution and the Nanjing massacre.

No doubt, if Japan’s nationalists had their way, the narratives of Japan’s wartime role would retreat further into euphemism and eventually, mendacity. But the vigilance of its east Asian neighbours forces Japan to account for every word and nuance in its textbooks, and questions of war and memory are publicly debated. In South Korea, also formally a democracy, who is calling the government to account for the omission from its school textbooks of any mention of Korean collaboration with Japanese imperialism – an electric political issue that has caused the leader of the ruling Uri party, Shin Ki Nam, to resign but has yet to lead to a widespread national self-questioning?

In China the situation is even more stark. China’s school history books remain firmly in the grip of Communist Party orthodoxy, and the government reserves to itself the privilege of switching historic grievances on and off at its convenience. I remember encountering a banner in Shanghai’s Fudan University that proclaimed, surprisingly, “Sino-Japanese Friendship from Generation to Generation.” The year was 1974 and Mao’s government was engaged in diplomatic overtures to Japan. An observation to a faculty member that I hoped the next generation’s friendship would be rather friendlier than the previous generation’s fell on stony ground. The party had decreed friendship today, and that meant friendship yesterday and tomorrow too.

When it comes to its own history, Chinese textbooks are more illuminating for what they omit than for the story they tell of China’s past. The party has never been able to write a definitive account of its own constantly revised history, which leaves rather a hole in the official story of the 20th century. Much of the first half of the century was taken up by Mao Tse-tung’s struggle to defeat not just the nationalist Kuomintang but his own Communist Party rivals. Official histories of the party are not noted for their objectivity; the party’s frequent power-struggles leave luckless historians floundering in search of new versions of the absolute truth.

During its first three decades in charge of the People’s Republic after 1949, the Communist Party enacted its internal power struggles on the larger map of China – with disastrous consequences. This gives Chinese historians an even bigger headache. What are they to say, for instance, about the catastrophe of the Great Leap Forward when Mao was convinced that the deranged theories of the Soviet “geneticist” Lysenko could be so successfully applied in China that harvests would treble overnight, and that China could overtake Britain in steel production if peasants would make it in backyard furnaces? The results, as analysed by Jaspar Becker in his book China’s Hungry Ghosts, included the death by starvation of some 30 million people. But the story as told in Chinese textbooks is of an entirely natural disaster and no firm death-toll.

The curious Chinese schoolchild will look in vain for an account of China’s invasion of Tibet and the reasons for the uprising there in 1959, or a truthful account of the fancifully named “self-defensive counter-attack” against Vietnam in February 1979, which cost the Chinese the loss of some 50,000 troops. The defeat of Japan in the second world war, she will learn, was entirely the achievement of Mao Tse-tung’s people’s army in their straw sandals, armed with the invincible word of Mao himself.

In later years, she will miss any account of Democracy Wall, the extraordinary and peaceful outbreak of debate – an experiment in open democracy indeed – that began with a few big “character posters” pasted on to an undistinguished stretch of wall at the west end of Beijing’s Changan Avenue in late 1978. It celebrated and discussed Deng Xiaoping’s call for “four modernisations”. But when Wei Jingsheng, an electrician from the Beijing Zoo posted a call for the “fifth modernisation” – democracy – the end of this remarkable experiment in free speech was in sight. Now even the wall itself has been demolished.

The Chinese student of history will not learn much either about the next great upheaval in China – the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989. That emerges, if at all, as a minor outbreak of disorder which the government wisely dealt with.

The disorder today between China and Japan is of the Beijing government’s own making. It seeks to provoke and orchestrate indignation against Japan as justification for an increasingly muscular regional policy, as a challenge to Japan’s own claims to membership of the United Nations Security Council, and as a safe channel for the potentially dangerous discontents of its students and young people.

The textbook conflict is an unpleasant manipulation of nationalist sentiment that reflects the ideological bankruptcy of China’s ruling elite. This elite may eventually regret the demons it has stirred. The one thing its anger certainly does not reflect is a passion for historical truth.

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