Ian Buruma: China’s persistent Japan syndrome

From The Financial Times, via Glimpse of the World:

What if the Japanese government apologised profusely and unconditionally for all the terrible things Japan did to China during the war? What if all Japanese textbooks described those wartime atrocities – the Nanking massacre, comfort women and so on – in full? What if Japan were to build lots of museums and memorials about Japanese war crimes committed in China, Korea, and south-east Asia? And what if Japan renounced all claims to disputed islands in the China Sea? Would this stop the Chinese from throwing stones at the Japanese embassy, or molesting Japanese students, or demonstrating against Japan’s bid for United Nations Security Council membership? Probably not. These outbursts of emotional and sometimes violent nationalism in China take place partly because they are the only expression of public protest the government allows.

Similar things can happen in a democracy too, of course, as they do in South Korea. When they occur, more or less spontaneously, neither the South Korean nor the Chinese government can afford to ignore them or stop them too forcefully. Hence the odd passivity of Chinese policemen when demonstrators smashed Japanese property in Beijing.

Sometimes, however, the Chinese and, to a lesser extent, the South Korean authorities deliberately inflame anti-Japanese passions to deflect attention from their own shortcomings. Nationalism, along with capitalist development, has become the only justification for the Chinese Communist Party’s monopoly on power, and when capitalism falters nationalism must be cranked up. Ever since Deng Xiaoping opened China’s door to foreign, especially Japanese, investment, and Marxist ideology faded into insignificance, “patriotic museums” have sprouted all over China – most of them dedicated to past Japanese atrocities.

April 16, 2005 8:33 AM
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