China vs. Japan: Will It Ever End?- Natasha Pickowicz

This article was written for China Digital Times:

With the 60th anniversary of the end of WWII in Asia at hand, Japanese-Chinese relations are once again painfully tangled. Despite the massive strides made by both China and Japan in the last few decades, the dynamics of globalization have caused them to struggle again for the upper hand in Asia.

The 60th anniversary has witnessed new tensions between two countries that are determined to construct their own versions of the past at a time of profound uncertainty about the future. China and Japan remain deeply divided over their shared wartime history. In recent months their nationalistic passions and memory wars have led to riots, demonstrations and expressions of deep hatred.

Some of the action has spilled over into California. Upset by recent whitewashing in school textbooks in Japan, Chinese-Americans proposed Bill 684 in California state legislature, a bill that seeks to address omissions and distortions about World War II in Asia contained in California public school textbooks. As activists and lobbyists on both sides of the bill rally support for their cause, China-Japan tensions are being played out in the California legislative process.



With China seeking to become a major player in the global network, many Chinese insist on pressuring Japan to acknowledge its history of aggression in China. Some have accused China of using the past as leverage. For instance, China is constantly raising the issue of Japanese “whitewashing” of history textbooks. School texts may seem like a trivial issue, but it draws attention to larger disputes between China and Japan concerning oil rights, territorial claims, and the future of Taiwan and North Korea. As Professor Frederic Wakeman, a leading China scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, said in a recent interview, China is using the issue to keep Japan “off-balance” on other, more important, matters, “the most recent being the bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. However, it is questionable how effective that strategy is.”

To prevent Japan from gaining a seat, China is prepared to remind the world of old Japanese war crimes, and to accuse Japan of failing to come to terms with the issue today. China is armed with a long list of questions including queries about the whitewashing of school textbooks. Some observers believe that China has a not-so-hidden agenda, since keeping Japan off the Security Council will bolster China’s position as a leading global power and the sole Asian member of the council. “It’s a Machievellian way of looking at it. It’s just one more weapon in the arsenal of the Chinese state to get what it wants, including oil and Unocal,” says Wakeman.

Specialists agree, however, that China needs to be concerned because Japan, a key buyer of Chinese goods, plays a major role in China’s economic future. Anti-Japanese outbursts in China run the risk of alienating consumers in Japan.

Few would deny that criticism of whitewashing serves to remind the world community of Japan’s horrific treatment of China half a century ago: the Nanjing Massacre of 1937 in which hundreds of thousands of civilians were slaughtered, the mobilizing of “comfort women” (a euphemism for Chinese women who were forced to serve as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers), the use of Chinese civilians for medical experiments, and the sanctioning of germ warfare tactics. But China’s attempt to shape a demonic image of Japan may be backfiring. Many people are now more likely to recall what China’s leaders themselves did to the Chinese people in the 20th century, such nightmares as the massive famine caused by Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Foward, the carnage of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and more recently, the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989. By stressing the war crimes of Japan, China is inviting closer scrutiny of the cover up of its own self-inflicted human catastrophes.

Chinese themselves are conflicted in their attitude toward Japan. “The Chinese Communist Party is divided into two different policy lines,” says Wakeman. “There is the modernist/economist policy line, the people who are behind Unocal and argue that China needs to take its place in the world now. That’s what globalization is all about. They do not want to engage in militaristic adventures and quests for romantic glory, because that’s not how the world operates.” The other, more emotional, policy line is “deeply rooted in the tradition of China’s military history.” In Wakeman’s view, “They are concerned with the Taiwan issue as a matter of national and cultural identity.”

Both the Japanese and Chinese governments have been guilty of manipulating public emotions in order to produce legions of ardent nationalists. With countless shrines, parades, and commemorative exhibitions, China has ensured that no one will forget what the Japanese did. In fact, these recently renewed tensions have had a direct impact on the Chinese-American community in California.

Although the California state senate passed Bill 684, it has attracted the attention of lobbyists linked to the Japanese consulate in San Francisco. Chinese Americans are deeply concerned about the fate of the bill, and tensions are mounting.

The bill’s proponents believe it is crucial for California’s youth to be properly educated on the realities of World War II. They say Bill 684 is neutral and unbiased and seeks only to educate California children about the past. Orlena Fong, a Santa Clara based lawyer and lobbyist, said in a recent interview, “It’s applicable to Italian-Americans, Japanese-Americans, applicable to any member of the American melting pot. It’s time for something like this to happen, because, to be honest with you, when I was in high school, all I learned about China was the Opium War, and that it was China’s fault ‘that it got hooked on opium.’ We should have an accurate world history, because, given globalization, we cannot stay in our bubble any longer. We have to study everything, because that’s the only way we’re going to survive in this world.”

Activists like Fong believe that because younger people in California did not experience the acute violence and outrages of the past 60 years, they need to understand history and resolve to grow beyond it. They must avoid the misguided actions of some young people in China who responded to the injustice of Japanese textbook whitewashing by staging violent demonstrations. By educating the young, the bill seeks to prevent new tragedies from occurring.

One only needs to look at images of recent anti-Japanese demonstrations in China to see that most protestors are young, college-age people. Some observers say that it is ironic that the students are protesting events that they are not old enough to have witnessed. It is tempting to call the students self-righteous and ignorant. But it is important to keep in mind that they live in a highly repressive, authoritarian state. People in China find very few opportunities to express political opinions or take a stand. Fong says, “It’s a lot easier for Chinese youths to have a political outlet” focused on Japan than on their own government. “They’re probably expressing some of their own anger. It’s easier for them to seem more nationalistic and unified about this cause. It looks better. If they weren’t limited in their ability to protest against the government, I wonder what issue they would focus on more,” Fong says. Since Japan is an “approved target,” it gets more attention. “I think because Chinese people usually aren’t allowed to be active and raise their voices in protest, they will try this rare outlet.” Since anti-Japanese demonstrations bolster the country’s nationalistic spirit, the government made little effort at the outset last spring to quell expressions of hatred.

The subject of whitewashed textbooks has been hotly contested in the last two decades. Both Japan and China have condoned and published textbooks that skip over ugly events that the government would rather forget. Each nation has skeletons it is eager to keep locked away. Every nation has experienced denial, according to Professor Wakeman: “This is an issue that will always be with us. Every system and every nation will try to present a version of its own history that is the most comforting.” Consider the case of the United States, where slavery once prevailed and millions of Native Americans were slaughtered. It was only in the 1960s and 1970s, over a century after the events, that serious efforts were made to confront the past and engage in dialogue with the descendents of victims.

It is just too soon for China? Both the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution occurred less than fifty years ago. Taking the example of America into consideration, should we be more understanding of China? Fong, the Santa Clara lawyer, argues that China is “not a threat to the U.S. Give them a break in terms of how long it will take for China to correct its human-rights problems!” But, she insists all nations have to come to terms with their past sooner or later if they want to “move forward and work with each other.”

Every nation is guilty of hypocrisies. Japan claims to be a democracy yet refuses to be honest about its inglorious past. China accuses Japan of denial, yet refuses to address its own violent and repressive history. The cultural notion of “face,” that is, avoiding shame and maintaining pride, is an important factor in accounting for the ways in which Japan and China have dealt with their past. “I think it’s especially hard for Asian peoples to fess up,” says Fong. “The reason China won’t own up to its own wrongdoings is the same reason Japan won’t admit to committing crimes against China.”
“China has realized how important it is to the world, and now it should make that first step. But I think it’s ingrained in Asian culture to save face, to avoid apologizing. This explains why Germany and Japan are so different in dealing with WWII,” Fong says. “But China should be confident and see how far it’s come. It’s a power play between the two countries, because they are both rising world powers, although China looks to supplant Japan. It’s a rivalry, and they aren’t accustomed to getting along.”

Given China’s recent rise, why would it want to air its dirty laundry for the world to see? But by focusing on the past crimes of Japan, China only brings greater attention to its own whitewashings and hypocrisies. The blame game is a double-edged sword that is best put down and retired. As for the status of Bill 684, Kansen Chu, a district representative for California state Senator Alquist, an original author of the bill, said in a recent interview, “We are very confident that it will pass on the assembly floor. After that there is an amendment to present to the assembly Education Committee, so we will have a conference between the assembly and the senate to basically agree on the latest amendment on the assembly side. Then the bill will head toward Governor Schwarzenegger’s desk. He is obligated to sign or veto it by October 9th.”

In late August, Bill 684 was passed by both the Assembly and the State Senate. Although it is not clear whether the bill will be signed by the governor, one thing remains certain. Only when China and Japan resolve their differences will they be able to look into the future together and share the distinction of being the leading powers of Asia.

For more information on Bill 684, follow its progress at this Bill-tracking website.

For more information about California-based organizations advocating Bill 684, see Historical Justice and the Alliance for Preserving the Truth of Sino-Japanese War.