This week, demonstrators incensed by Japan’s purchase of the disputed rocky outcrops known as the Senkaku Islands filled Chinese cities for the biggest anti- Japanese protests since 2005.
These mostly young men and women holding pictures of Mao Zedong reminded me of Mao’s speech at the founding of the People’s Republic of China in September 1949: the “Chinese people, comprising one-quarter of humanity,” Mao warned, “have now stood up,” adding that “ours will no longer be a nation subject to insult and humiliation.”
Fair enough. Mao was speaking after a decade of devastation, during which a protracted war with marauding Japanese imperialists was followed by a civil war with the U.S.- backed Nationalists of Chiang Kai-Shek.
But China also has border issues with India, Indonesia, Mongolia, the Philippines and Vietnam, and it fought wars with two of these countries in the previous half-century. Few demonstrators ever protest outside their embassies and business outposts in China.
So what about the Sino-Japanese relationship periodically enrages nationalists in both countries? What is this trap of historical memory and nationalist myth-making in which both countries find themselves?
Transmitting its Confucian cultures to its neighbors, China had been Japan’s “teacher” for centuries. In the late 19th century, however, Japan, bullied out of its long isolation by the U.S.’s “black ships,” abruptly broke free of its stagnant neighborhood. While the Qing Empire floundered, and foreigners blithely sliced the Chinese “melon,” the feudal Japanese re- constituted themselves into a modern nation-state.
The new Japan’s coming-out party, appropriately, was the defeat of their doddery old tutor China in 1895, and the annexation of Taiwan, among other war booty. Soon, many in Japan came to believe that its salvation depended on becoming an empire on the Western model.
Many Chinese had flocked, or been driven as political exiles, to Japan to learn the secrets of its awesome new power. Indeed, China’s political leadership would be drawn from these men, many of whom came to be alarmed by Japan’s menacing moves.
The “father of the Chinese nation,” Sun Yat-Sen, who depended on Japanese patrons for much of his life, weighed his words carefully in 1924, in one of his last speeches: “Japan today has become acquainted with the Western civilization of the rule of Might, but retains the characteristics of the Oriental civilization of the rule of Right. Now the question remains whether Japan will be the hawk of Western civilization of the rule of Might, or the tower of strength of the Orient. This is the choice which lies before the people of Japan.”
The militarists who committed Japan to an Asian war of conquest in the 1930s had already made their choice. In their fantasy of an Asian lebensraum, the vast territory of China was there to be conquered and pressed into the service of Japan’s industrial economy.
In China, slowly rising to its own sense of nationhood, Japanese viciousness in the 1920s and 1930s erased all previous images of their neighbor; the idea of Japan as an enemy was the solid basis of the nationalist mythology -- the fall-and-rise- of-China narrative -- constructed by the Chinese communists.
Japan had its own national identity to reconstruct from the wreckage of the Second World War. Textbooks in both countries came to deal in falsehoods: the Japanese ones whitewash their country’s responsibility for atrocities during the Second World War and mostly portray Japan as liberators of Southeast Asia. Chinese texts, suppressing all of Mao’s disasters, describe Japanese expansionism as the biggest crime against humanity.
Protesters in both countries have grown up on these pernicious histories. And they may point to a hopeless situation. But it’s important to remember the good relationship between the two countries, which followed the worst period in China’s recent history.
In the 1960s, a spectacular recklessness marked Mao’s China externally as well as internally. Cultural Revolution at home was accompanied by an attempt at world revolution, as China fueled communist insurgencies in Burma, Malaysia and Thailand -- and even aroused the ire of its only real friend, North Korea.
But major differences with its Soviet ally provoked Mao to send overtures to the U.S., and Japan was quick to respond to President Richard Nixon’s groundbreaking visit to China. Tokyo moved to restore relations with China in the early 1970s, even recognizing the latter’s claims over Japan’s old colony, Taiwan.
The next decade witnessed ever-closer cooperation as China opened up its economy to foreign trade and investment. The basis laid then still exists in the form of the large Chinese student population in Japan.
Indeed, like India and Pakistan, another of Asia’s historically tainted antagonisms, China and Japan have every reason to transcend these inherited problems. They need each other’s markets and products, especially as their economies slow -- Japan is the second biggest investor in China after Hong Kong. But both remain trapped in a malevolent fantasy of the other.
Politicians are to be largely blamed for this impasse. These include elected officials such as Tokyo’s right-wing Governor Shintaro Ishihara, who provoked the current crisis with his plan to buy Senkaku Islands, as well as China’s unelected rulers, who find it expedient to stoke nationalism.
Chinese leaders insist their country’s “rise” is peaceful and not directed against any country. Yet they rely on nationalist urges for regular bouts of emotional catharsis for its discontented urban masses.
Textbooks in both counties will probably not be amended anytime soon, and the Uniqlo stores in China will face the threat of unrest for a while. Still, occasional eruptions of nationalist rage are preferable to military confrontations. And historical animosities can simmer while commerce goes on, especially when it depends, as it does in so much of Asia, on complex supply chains and relays of technologies.
At some point, however, the bigger, more powerful country - - the one that has “stood up” -- will have to take the risk of breaking the stalemate with a bold and generous initiative. In 1924, as Sun Yat-Sen pointed out, it was Japan’s turn to choose what kind of country it wanted to be. It is now China’s opportunity to show its own rise will indeed be peaceful, and that it will value Right over Might.
(Pankaj Mishra is the author of “From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia,” and a Bloomberg View columnist, based in London and Mashobra, India. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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