Japan Through the Eyes of the Chinese

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Part 1 – The perception of the Nanjing Massacre in China’s collective memory.

Having recently returned from China where I taught at a university in one of the country’s biggest cities, I was amazed at how effectively the Chinese government continues to control information in the country. Over the last year, international news has been filled with stories of whistle-blowers and people evading the control of those who would limit their freedom to speech, facilitated largely by increased access to the internet. A new era of grassroots democracy appears to be taking hold all around the world. However, despite a few isolated rumours of a yet-to-emerge ‘Jasmine Revolution’, to me such a phenomenon could not have seemed less likely to occur in China. It is of course common knowledge internationally that the Chinese government suppresses free speech and enforces strict censorship laws, and of course the Chinese themselves are at least vaguely aware of this.But what I found more remarkable was the subtle use of propaganda by the government, which appeared to have great effect on my students without most of them even realising. In particular, I was struck by the propaganda surrounding China’s relationship with Japan – an issue which came to the fore once again in September 2010 when a resurgence in a long-running dispute over the Diaoyu Islands between Japan and China prompted protests in both countries. In this two-part article, I will attempt to relay some of my own observations on this topic and also some of the remarks made to me by Chinese people themselves. This first part will focus on the Nanjing Massacre in the collective memory of the Chinese, and how it is manipulated by the government. The second part will focus on the anti-Japanese protests that swept China in September 2010 during a resurge in the Diaoyu Islands dispute.

China has had an undeniably fraught relationship with Japan; in 1937 the invading Japanese army massacred defeated and surrendered Chinese troops and civilians in Nanjing in what was a truly appalling atrocity. It does not strike me as unreasonable, therefore, that there still remains some hostility to Japan in modern-day China, even amongst the new generation of students. Nonetheless, the strength and apparently unquestioning nature of this hostility did not feel right – I was even told once by an entire classroom of students that not one of them could possibly be friends with a Japanese person. As if such open racism was not shocking enough, I was even told that some students had celebrated the earthquake and tsunami that devastated the north-east coast of Japan in March this year, claiming it to be ‘karma’ for the Nanjing Massacre. When we consider the spirit of reconciliation from all sides that has followed similar atrocities committed by Nazi Germany in Europe, the attitude in China to me seemed to require explanation.

I went some way towards getting an explanation when I visited the Memorial Hall of the Nanjing Massacre shortly after. Of course, it is only right for such an atrocity to be be exposed and remembered in this way, just as Holocaust Museums and Memorials perform the same function in the West, and for the most part the Memorial Hall was an appropriate marker. Nonetheless, it was immediately clear that the authorities had an agenda; there is barely a snippet of information which does not explicitly remind the reader who were the perpetrators of this atrocity, how great was their inhumanity, and that the Chinese should find strength in unity so as to prevent such suffering in the future. The Memorial Hall left many of us with an uneasy impression that a notable effect of the commemoration was to perpetuate Chinese partisanship against the Japanese – certainly there was no mention of the cowardly retreat by Chinese government officials, locking the city gates as they went and so committing the inhabitants to martyrdom. When I had the opportunity to speak to a friend of mine – a Chinese student at the university who I will refer to as Nicola – about China’s attitude to Japan, without my prompting her she immediately cited the Nanjing Massacre as a key part of the history curriculum for Chinese students. Much of the emphasis of which, she told me, is on Japanese past cruelty to China. In fact, even as a foreigner it is hard to spend any time in China without picking up on constant reminders of China’s historically fraught relationship with Japan. I nearly lost count of how many times I saw re-enactments of Sino-Japanese warfare on the big screen, whilst Nicola recalled at least one year in which prime time TV was specifically dedicated to such shows “to bolster patriotism in the run up to the Chinese New Year”.

What must be the effect of these constant reminders repeatedly stoking the fire of what is certainly a painful part of China’s collective memory? To me it seemed that the government has not so much created hostility against Japan, but that it has carefully manipulated the information in the public domain, through education and popular culture, to nurture it and even to amplify it by constant reminders of terrible episodes such as Nanjing – all the while carefully avoiding any mention of Chinese wrongdoing. As a result, many (but I emphasise not all) of my students expressed shockingly hostile attitudes towards Japan that sometimes verged on open racism.

Part 2 – Anti-Japanese protests during the September 2010 Diaoyu Islands dispute.

In September 2010, a long-running dispute between China and Japan over the Diaoyu Islands once again came to the foreground, following a collision between two ships, one Japanese and one Chinese, off one of the islands. As was reported in international media, the conflict provoked anti-Japanese protests across China, and similar protests against China held in Japan. Nicola, the aforementioned student in the ‘Part 1′ article, informed me that many students at the university where I worked attended these protests which at times turned violent and resulted in damage to Japanese property. There were apparent attempts by the Chinese security forces to suppress these protests such as the deployment of riot police, and a day-time curfew imposed on the university where I worked and presumably others as well – one of my English colleagues was closely questioned when he attempted to leave the university campus. Nonetheless, it did occur to me at the time and I still wonder now; how often is it that the Chinese security forces allow protests of any scale, let alone widespread and violent ones, to occur? Their reaction to mere whispers in the wind concerning the Jasmine Revolution – intended as a peaceful protest – proved that they are more than capable of completely quelling any form of unrest when they set their mind to it. When I asked Nicola whether she felt that the government had in effect permitted controllable anti-Japanese protests to take place, she did not think it was totally beyond the realm of possibility. Clearly this is only my speculation, but I find it an interesting one.

More concrete is what Nicola told me about the protesters; not knowing much myself about the dispute but understanding that it was complex, I thought it reasonable for many Chinese to demonstrate support for their government’s claim to the Islands. However, Nicola told me that if I were to talk to those who attended the demonstrations there would be very few able to provide a factually-based argument for why they supported their government’s claim. Most of the protesters, she suggested, were simply complying with the partisan mentality that appears to be subtly but pervasively encouraged from above. Unquestioningly uniting under the flag (and implicitly under the government) in the face of what the Chinese media portrayed as continuing Japanese aggression. Nicola told me that most Chinese feel no need to search for any information besides what their government gives them, since such independent and critical thinking “is simply not how most of us have been brought up to think”. Whilst this is clearly a generalisation I must say that it is one that I and my colleagues certainly found to be generally (but not always) true in the classroom.

Drawing comparison to how Chinese students ‘learn’ about the dispute over Taiwan, Nicola told me that “it is in the school curriculum that we must learn the seven reasons why Taiwan belongs to China. This is one of several topics that might come up in our university entrance exams”. These seven reasons, she told me, are usually everything that a Chinese student ever really ‘knows’ about the Taiwan dispute. But nonetheless, almost all students unerringly consider Taiwan to be Chinese and will never even reflect on how woefully uninformed they are on the topic. I suspect that, once again, this is simply not how most of them have been brought up to think. I heard many better-informed Chinese associates of mine lamenting the general ignorance of the students at our university when it comes to Taiwan. That is not to say that they necessarily blame the students for their views, but that they regret how misinformed they are to hold the usual dogmatic attitude of ‘Taiwan is ours, period’, and had concerns about where such a widespread attitude might lead.

Good propaganda is subtle and hard to detect. It hides in plain sight, in everyday life, and even when you think you see it you can rarely be one hundred percent sure – if not for the concurrency of some few Chinese I would be far less sure of what I had seen. Nonetheless, it is well-documented that the Chinese government is totalitarian in its control of information, and whilst propaganda is sometimes hard to detect I saw many examples of its crude sister, censorship, particularly with regard to Liu Xiaobo. In reference to the Nobel Laureate, Nicola estimated that only around 20-30% of the students at her university would even recognise his name. “The government definitely tries to hide this” she told me. Unfortunately this really did not come as a shock to me. What I think is shocking, and what I hope this article has demonstrated, is that the Chinese government is so remarkably successful in how it controls information, particularly with regard to propaganda. How the government has achieved this success in the modern world of instant communication, where it is so incredibly easy to access a cyber-space where free speech reigns supreme, I do not know. Especially when Nicola in particular, but others besides, are proof to me of just how easy it is to tap into such ideas. She is no dissident, no activist, not even a politics student. She is simply someone who seeks to inquire, to find information with which she might make her own opinions, and who does not blindly believe what she is told.

And it seems to me that the secret of the Chinese government’s success is precisely that, for some reason that I find to be both unfathomable and disheartening, this makes her different from far too many other Chinese students.