Thursday, September 3, 2015

The great parade

And so ends the great parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Anti-Fascist Victory.

The whole of Beijing, the capital city of the world's second largest economy, a modern metropolis of 15 million souls, has been basically put on standby for the sake of this parade. The whole city center has been pretty much in a state of lock down for the last few days, with important avenues and subway stations closed to the public, and many establishments also forced to close. Beijing's usually busy streets were practically empty of cars this morning.

To a great extent, not only Beijing but the whole country has been gearing up for the occasion for days. The entire nation got a special holiday today so they could watch the parade. Chinese TV has been showing almost nothing but programs about the parade and documentaries and old films on the "War of Anti-Japanese Resistance" for the last few days, with most normal programming suspended.

I watched the parade on TV in my flat (although I actually saw some of the fighter jets from my window). It was certainly a huge and impressive display, spectacularly well choreographed, but you would expect nothing less from the Chinese state. If there's one thing they are good at, it's putting on a show. All the same, the whole event left a bad taste in my mouth.

It's not that I have a problem with celebrating the victory against fascism in the Second World War, and in fact I hope it is never forgotten. That many Chinese contributed to this struggle with their lives is also undeniable. What I do have a problem with, on the other hand, is the way that it is officially commemorated in China. In contemporary government discourse, there is very little focus on fascism as an ideology, and what it actually means. In fact, usually the word fascism is barely used, and the enemy is simply referred to as Japan or "the Japanese devils". And there is little attempt to present the Chinese fight against Japan as part of a wider global struggle against injustice and inhumanity.

Instead, the lesson which the Chinese people are supposed to draw from this chapter of their history is narrowly nationalistic: "we, the Chinese people, struggled against the Japanese, the last in a line of foreign invaders. Now we must make China strong, so nobody invades us again". In modern Chinese discourse, the Japanese are often demonized as a people who have an eternal instinct to invade other countries, and who still remain militaristic and aggressive towards China. And this in spite of Japan's army never firing a shot in anger since 1945.

Let's also not forget how the struggle against Japan is now officially presented as being led by the Maoists, when actually the Nationalist party bore the brunt of the fighting. And of course, the downplaying of the fact that it was mainly the United States who beat Japan in the Pacific, enabling China's liberation (this can be compared to all those European countries where the role of the local resistance in defeating the Nazis is exaggerated, while that of the US/Britain is downplayed).

The message today's parade was supposed to send to the ordinary Chinese is "look how powerful our military is; nowadays no country would dare to mess with us". Not really much of a celebration of world peace and the values of anti-fascism, then. It certainly had the desired effect on some people: my wechat feed is full of nationalistic posts from Chinese acquaintances, expressing their pride at seeing their country displaying all those tanks, jet fighters and ballistic missiles. Having said that, a Chinese journalist friend wrote the following post in her wechat: "they are using the fascists' methods to celebrate the anti-fascist victory".
military helicopters form the number "70" in the skies of Beijing


Richard said...

很有意思 - 你可以在外面走路嗎?

Scottie said...

Hi Jixang,

Some thoughts:

Regarding the whole country preparing for this parade, like you said, the country got a holiday for this event and that most TV channels have been showing WWII related programs over the last day or so (If I remember correctly, CCTV 5 the sports channel was still showing sports the day before the parade) Nonetheless, while much of the area around Tiananmen was under tight security over the past few days (I in fact walked through that area the day before the parade), the part of Beijing where I currently live seems normal. I think a lot of people are simply going along with the flow, hard to tell if they are really into this or not.

When it comes to the relationship between China and Japan, it is a complex one. Rightly or wrongly, Japan has recently taken steps to change its post WWII standing, such as the reinterpretation of Article 9 of its constitution. The whole issue of the Yasukuni shrine is still there. These thing do anger the Chinese. On the other hand, China has also become more assertive in its foreign policy, especially in its territorial claims. This particular parade (totally unnecessary, in my opinion) and the airing of war against Japan TV dramas are also contributing to the rising nationalism in contemporary China. All in all, it's a very volatile situation.

As for WWII itself, certainly the Americans played a huge role in defeating the Japanese. However, we must also not forget that a huge chunk, if not most, of the Japanese military forces were tied down fighting in China. In this sense, China also made great contributions to the war itself by continuing its struggle against Imperial Japan, it's not as if the Chinese government had actually surrendered. Consequently, it is quite different from some European countries in WWII, where national governments actually collapsed and resistance to the Nazis could only be conducted by non-governmental entities.

Btw, I wouldn't call CCP members prior to 1949 "Maoists." They were definitely different from the real Maoists who emerged in the 1960s.

Ji Xiang said...

Wait so you're living in Beijing now? You came back from the United States?

On the point, I obviously agree that the Chinese government (and that means the Guomindang) did fight the Japanese, and their contribution should not be forgotten. Still, while the Chinese sacrificed more lives, the Americans could contribute incomparably more power on the ground. The comparison with European countries isn't perfect, but I do think the way that the French in particular always go on about De Gaulle's French resistance as if they had liberated France themselves, while downplaying the fact that it was basically the Americans who kicked out the Germans, presents some similarities. The Italians also tend to overestimate how many people were in the resistance, and underestimate how many members of the fascist party there were. Tendentious views of WWII aren't only taught in school in Asia.

The fact that much of Japanese society doesn't really recognize that it did wrong during the Second World War is unfortunate, as are the constant visits to the Yasukuni Shrine. It makes Koreans angry as well. On the other hand, it is not technically true that Japan never apologized, as people here love to say. It did, and it also paid compensation to China, and of course the Chinese media never mentions this. The change to the constitution was probably precipitated by alarm at the rather hysterical Chinese reactions to the Diaoyu island issue, and fear of China in general. This is something which the Chinese media simply does not explain to its people. They present Japan as still being militaristic and a threat, and China as being a poor victim which loves peace, and that is just silly. If there's one thing which modern Japan is not, that's a threat to China.

Ji Xiang said...

@Richard: 我可以在外面走路,没那么严重。可是长安街都被封闭了。

Scottie said...

Well, the Japanese government has certainly apologized numerous times. Unfortunately, these apologies have also been tainted by controversies such as visits to Yasukuni, the comfort women issue and politicians denying the Nanjing massacre...etc. On the other hand, it's also true that Chinese media rarely reports everything in its proper context and plays a big role in stirring up anti-Japanese sentiments.

As for war reparations, both KMT and CCP renounced their rights to compensations. So what ended up happening was that Japan provided assistance, mostly in the forms of low interest loans, to China to help build its economy. However, these assistance is still different from formal reparations. The problem here certainly has more to do with the Chinese civil war resulting in PRC and ROC contesting for legitimacy and outside support, which hurts China's position at the post war settlement.

As for the Diaoyu islands issue, the most recent hubbub (2012 to now) has more to do with Ishihara Shintaro, the controversial right-wing governor of Tokyo at the time, who precipitated the whole thing of Japanese government officially buying the islands. Of course these islands have been a source of contention for decades now, but it seems to me Ishihara was really out to stir the pot this last time around.

I think the whole reinterpretation of the Constitution is a way for Japan to get back to becoming a normal nation again, a world power not just in the economic sense. There is certainly nothing wrong with this at all. However, it is also understandable why China and also Korea would be deeply suspicious about this.

And yes, I have been living in Beijing for the past year or so.

Ji Xiang said...

Yes, and does the Chinese media ever remind its people that Japan provided assistance? Part of the problem remains the Chinese media's unwillingness to let people see the whole picture. Ishihara was clearly out to stir trouble, but the Japanese government was actually trying to make things better by buying the islands. Once again, the Chinese media chose not to present it like that.

It's true that many Japanese deny what happened during the war. I myself once got into a debate on Facebook with a Japanese who claimed the Korean and Chinese comfort women were just prostitutes who joined the army voluntarily. It's a real pity. Having said that, an unwillingness to ever admit that your own country victimized others seems unfortunately to be a common trait in all of Asia. Most Chinese always see China as the victim of foreigners throughout history and never, ever, as a bully towards others. The Koreans see themselves as a uniquely innocent race, constantly victimized by the outside world. Then again, even Americans have trouble recognizing what they did do the natives. I get the feeling that genuine regret for one country's actions towards outsiders is exceedingly hard to find. Germany's attitude of regret for the Second World War is something really rare, and all the more admirable for that.

Glad to hear you are back in Beijing. Let's catch up some time.

Scottie said...

Regarding the assistance, as I said above, most of it is in the form of low interest loans which of course needs to be paid back. This makes it hard for most Chinese to accept it as a kind of compensation and the Chinese media to mention it as such, even if they are committed to report all news in their proper context (Although I've seen discussions among the Chinese themselves on whether these aid should be considered as compensations or not). But as I said, the 2 Chinese governments are the ones who are most responsible for the reparation issue; it has less to do with the media per se.

The Japanese government buying of the Diaoyu islands is what Ishihara wants to do in the first place. Sure, the Japanese central government prevented him from building port facilities on the Diaoyu, but his overall goal of purchasing the islands has been achieved. This change of the previous status quo is what riles the Chinese, it doesn't matter who buys the islands. One can debate whether the Chinese anger is justified or not, but that's another story.

Regarding Germany, to the Germans' credit, what they have done is indeed admirable and it took a lot of effort. However, it is also a very unique situation given the nature of Nazism, cold war politics, the horror of the Holocaust and how well it has been documented, publicized and studied (Anne Frank, Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, the film Nuit et brouillard, Raul Hilberg's seminal study, Hannah Arendt's idea of the banality of evil...etc). In this sense, enormous pressures have been put on Germany to reflect and change. Japan didn't have to go through all of this. Nonetheless, some Japanese have been reflecting, I am thinking for example the historian Ienaga Saburo, the journalist Honda Katsuichi and so forth.

I don't think most Chinese see China as the victim of foreigners throughout history. If anything, most of them would probably say China has a glorious past as the dominant power in the region. But given its tumultuous modern history and its current predicament, it's easy to see why many Chinese would see China as a victim in the modern period. Because of all the chaos China has experienced in the modern period, there is this tendency among many Chinese intellectuals since the May 4th movement onward such as Hu Shi, Lu Xun and more recently Deng Xiaomang...etc, to be overly reflective by attacking almost anything in Chinese culture and citing it as the reason behind the country's various tragedies and its failure to modernize (similar to what some German intellectuals did post WWII). Most history textbooks also talk about how China has a glorious history but its "fedual" system has become backward and corrupt prior to the Opium War and when the Western powers came, China could experience defeat. China's problem is therefore both domestic and foreign. These days, we continue to see Chinese people's lack of real confidence in their country in that while many are proud of the PRC, they still prefer foreign goods and want to emigrate abroad or at least send their children overseas. This is because many Chinese know China currently is strong only on the outside.

And yes, if you have time, let's catch up sometime.

Ji Xiang said...

Yes, considering China's modern history, it's not hard to see why the Chinese would see China as a victim in the modern period. On the other hand, it seems to me that many ordinary Chinese see China as only ever having been a victim of outsiders, and never an oppressor of other peoples. I remember when a Chinese friend said to me that "至少我们中国人从来没有欺负别人."

It's true that in the modern era, the Chinese have suffered much more at the hand of foreigners than the other way round. On the other hand, if you go to Vietnam they will tell you that they have been fighting the Chinese for their freedom for 1000 years, and in China almost nobody seems to know that the Vietnamese feel this way. Or if you ask the Taiwanese aboriginal tribes, they also feel that they have been mistreated by the Chinese for the last few centuries, but again most Chinese would be baffled to find this out. Of course, according to the PRC government, the Taiwanese aborigines are a "Chinese minority" as well, so that's an internal affair.

This sort of attitude is not limited to China obviously. All over the world, people are much more aware of the injustices that their own country has suffered at the hands of others, than of what their own country has done to others. Even in Britain, ordinary people's knowledge of the crimes of the British empire is not really that deep (but at least they admit the empire wasn't a good thing). In China, on the other hand, the government really seems to do its best to keep popular resentment alive against the foreign powers for the "100 years of humiliation". I know Chinese who are aware of this and see it as a problem, but it seems to me most people basically accept the government's perspective.

I am aware that in the early 20th century, a lot of Chinese intellectuals condemned Chinese culture as the reason for the country's backwardness, and sometimes they even went too far. Mao Zedong also condemned Confucianism and most "feudal" culture. I don't see much of that attitude left nowadays though. Currently, both the government and the people seem to do nothing but bask in the glory of China's glorious 5000 years of history, in spite of what they teach about the feudal system. Maybe the real problem is a lack of balance. Many people seem to swing from self-hatred to great pride in their country rather too easily.

Scottie said...

Actually, anti-traditionalism is still pretty strong nowadays, especially among intellectuals. While there are certainly an increasing number of professors who begin to view Chinese culture and tradition positively, my sense is the anti-traditionalists still have the upper hand (I believe this is generally true with the average folks on the street as well). I mentioned Deng Xiaomang earlier, but other scholars like the well-known historian Qin Hui also doesn't have a very positive view of China's past. Earlier this year, I audited a university course on the cultural revolution with over 200 students in it, and the professor severely criticized Chinese tradition and saw it as one of the key reasons why the tragedy and fiasco of cultural revolution happened in the first place.

The government certainly is promoting Chinese tradition these days. However, the basic tenet of PRC's modern history education and textbooks remains anti-traditional: the traditional "feudal" element is too backward for the modern world and this is why CCP revolution and leadership is needed in order for China to prosper. Students are still required to learn about Marxism and in general they don't study much of Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism...etc. Iconoclastic writers like Lu Xun are still widely read in schools, though maybe not as much as of 4-5 years ago (Yet, almost every current college student, recent graduate and PhD I know have read Lu's works in high school as they are in the textbooks).

You are absolutely correct about the lack of balance, which is the hallmark of China's modern history and current situation as radicalism still plays the leading role. It seems many people especially the younger generation simply don't care much about tradition. I think what you are seeing is more of an expression of Chinese nationalism fueled by the CCP and less of a genuine appreciation of Chinese culture and tradition. It's more of a celebration of how China has finally become a "modern" nation with a glorious past rather than Chinese tradition itself is great. And as I said above, many people's real belief and action (e.g want to move to the West and many do) contradict this message of China as a wonderful place.

Scottie said...

Btw, just want to clarify: the people I mention who criticize Chinese culture, they don't just attack China's traditional past, as a huge number of them also criticize contemporary Chinese society and culture as well. Many of these critics are liberals who believe in Western style constitutionalism and liberal democracy, such as Qin Hui. Others still support the current regime, though have nothing good to say about China's traditional past. As for those who affirm tradition, they are also divided: some support the CCP, others who are unhappy with the contemporary situation, naturally are against the CCP.

Ji Xiang said...

I think the people you are talking about now are the intellectuals, rather than the masses. I am aware that intellectuals with all sorts of positions can be found in China. For instance there are liberals like Liu Yu, who favour liberal democracy, and ones who have no love for China's traditional culture. If we talk about the folk on the street though, it's obviously a different story. To be honest I am not sure if most of them can be said to be "anti-traditional". It's true that if you get them started, they will condemn the Chinese people's supposed 劣根性. But most of them also seem to be convinced that China has the longest and richest history in the world or something.

I agree that its more to do with government-fueled nationalism than any genuine appreciation of Chinese tradition. When it comes to actually following Chinese tradition, few of them care. For example, how many Chinese brides wear a red dress instead of a white one for their wedding (except in the countryside)? And indeed many Chinese want to go and live in the West, although that is the same in most of Asia. But then again, modern Chinese nationalism isn't really based on the idea that China is a "wonderful place", but rather on resentment because of the bad things which foreigners did to China in the past.

Scottie said...

Yes, as you said, if you have a casual conversation with the Chinese about their tradition and culture, most average folks will mention the glorious, continuous 5,000 years of Chinese culture and history...etc. However as you have also pointed out, once they get more comfortable with the conversation and if you ask them, many (not all) will start mentioning the various deficiencies and problems, such as the Chinese's negative characteristics, their "劣根性." I think this shows people's real attitude towards Chinese cultures of the present and the past once they start talking about them more. Adding this to what I wrote in the previous posts, I believe a strong case can be made that despite the increasing efforts to promote Chinese culture, anti-traditional thinking is still prevalent in China today, regardless whether this mindset itself is good or bad or if its judgment on Chinese culture is accurate or not.