China Policy Institute: Analysis



Hong Kong during World War II: A Transnational Battlefield

Written by Chi Man Kwong.

On 30 August, 1945, a combined fleet of British, Australian, and Canadian vessels entered Victoria Harbour of Hong Kong, led by Cecil Harcourt, a British admiral. Expecting the fleet ashore at the Naval Dockyard (modern-day Admiralty) was a cheerful crowd of Hong Kong Chinese and a number of emotionless Japanese soldiers.

British, Indian, Canadian, and Dutch POWs and internees scattered across the ex-British colony were rescued by British and Commonwealth troops, some of them led by a Canadian Chinese officer William K. L. Lore. The above event was known as the “Liberation of Hong Kong” (重光), and 30 August was a public holiday until 1997.

The transfer of Hong Kong’ sovereignty to China changed the focus of war commemoration in Hong Kong: it shifted from the suffering and deliverance of the people of all ethnicity to the local resistance against the Japanese, especially the actions of the communist-led patriotic movements before the war and the underground resistance campaign of the East River Column. Many of the narratives of the war experience of Hong Kong tend to focus on local issues and often risk detaching Hong Kong from the larger scheme of things, namely the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Allies’ war against Japan. The transnational feature of Hong Kong society before and during the war is sometimes left out as well. The seventieth anniversary of the liberation is perhaps a good opportunity for us to review some aspects of the war experience of Hong Kong and rethink the transnational nature of the city.

International Strategic Importance of Hong Kong

As Hans van de Ven, Rana Mitter, and many other academics who work on the Second World War in Asia have convincingly argued, the China-Burma-India Theatre was much more than a sideshow in the war against Japan. Hong Kong, sandwiched between the CBI Theatre and the Pacific theatres of war, had a special role in the eyes of the Japanese decision makers. After the fall of the China coast to Japan in 1937-1938, Hong Kong was the only major port along the China coast that allowed strategic supplies to be sent into mainland China. Equipped with excellent port and repairing facilities, Japan could also use Hong Kong to establish firm control over the South China Sea, Japan’s gateway to Southeast Asia.

Countering the Japanese attempt to turn Hong Kong into a strategic springboard was an Allied air and naval campaign fought by both Chinese and American flyers and US Navy submariners. In Hong Kong and the nearby Guangdong and Guangxi provinces, there was a multinational underground resistance campaign participated by the British Army Aid Group, the Nationalist regulars and guerrillas, and the Communist East River Column. Although these forces were not always cooperating effectively, the combined Allied resistance prevented Japan from fully exploiting Hong Kong’s strategic potential.

This failure, in turn, hindered Japan’s effort to tap the resources of Southeast Asia, and partly explained the Japanese Army’s decision to launch the Operation Ichigo in 1944, a large-scale offensive that almost destroyed the Nationalist regime and helped shape the political history of China for decades. The Ichigo Offensive also swept the Nationalist forces and guerrillas away from Guangdong, unwittingly prevented a Nationalist takeover of Hong Kong when Japan surrendered. The strategic importance of Hong Kong as the only major seaport in South China did not end with the surrender of Japan; when Harry Truman, the US President, decided to allow the British to retake Hong Kong in August 1945, he was expecting the Nationalist troops could use Hong Kong as a springboard to reach North China and Manchuria. Thus, although international military operations are often left out in narratives of Hong Kong history, they were actually instrumental to the changing fate of this city.

At the local level, the “British” garrison of Hong Kong that resisted the Japanese invasion in December 1941 consisted of servicemen from the United Kingdom, the British Raj, Canada, Australia, Portugal (Macau), Philippines, and even France. Many of the members of the local Volunteer Defence Force were Eurasians. More than a thousand local Chinese served in the British forces as seamen, gunners, sappers, and infantry. Some of them escaped captivity and later fought in Burma as a unit. These “Anglo-Chinese” soldiers were highly diversified; students of the University of Hong Kong and London-born Chinese with a Cockney accent were put in the same unit with Hakka sappers from the New Territories. If one only focuses on the local Chinese resistance or suffering one may lose sight of these international dimensions of the conflict.

Complexity of Identity and Collaboration

By 1945, close to half a million Chinese fought on the Japanese side; hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese and Koreans served in the Japanese military; these remain thorny issues nowadays. The problem of collaboration and allegiance in Hong Kong is no less complex. The experience of Gan Zhiyan in Hong Kong is illustrative. Gan, an Anhui native, was a Nationalist officer who was caught in Hong Kong during the Japanese invasion. He avoided certain death only because he was a classmate of a Japanese naval intelligence officer. Gan gained a fortune by working under the Japanese, and eventually commanded a “Coastal Defence Force” that helped the Japanese to control the islands between Macau and Hong Kong such as Lajiweidao. However, he also maintained peace and fed the inhabitants of those islands. When the Japanese surrendered he turned to Zhang Fakui, the Nationalist general who took over Guangdong, and kept his base and his little amphibious force until 1949. Gan then left for the United States and died in 1998.

The issue was particularly problematic to the Eurasians, who were by no means fully accepted by the Chinese and British communities before the war. A number of them turned to the Japanese and even rose in ranks as members of the notorious kempeitai (憲兵隊 or Military Police Corps); others joined the Allied resistance effort. The case of Sir Robert Kotewall, the Eurasian member of the Legislative Council, is worth mentioning. Urged by British officials to help taking care of the population when the British surrendered, Kotewall became a member of the “Chinese Representative Council” formed by the Japanese. Kotewall was accused of being a “Quisling” but was acquitted and silently withdrawn from public life.

Even the identity of the dominant local Chinese population was by no means clear-cut. There were westernised urban dwellers, villagers of the New Territories who claimed their ancestral root to the Song Dynasty or further back, migrants from other provinces, overseas Chinese, and refugees who fled from different parts of China. Contrary to the common view that Hong Kong was a migrant society, a sense of Hong Kong identity also prevailed among at least some of the locals. A Japanese official who was responsible for the forced migration of residents from Hong Kong to China noted that some of the Hong Kong Chinese had little or no connection with mainland China and saw Hong Kong their ancestral home. In short, one risks over-generalisation if one overlooks the transnational nature of the Hong Kong society when assuming all Chinese in Hong Kong shared the same identity and allegiance.

Restoration of a Transnational City

The years between 1937 and 1945 left a considerable mark on the transnational character of Hong Kong. Because of the influx of refugees from different parts of China after 1937, the industry of Hong Kong witnessed a considerable boom before the Japanese invasion. Population pressure also forced the colonial government to pay more attention to hygiene, education, housing, and labour issues. The fall of Hong Kong led to another large-scale movement of the Hong Kong population as residents were forced by the Japanese Occupation Government to leave for mainland China; an unknown number of them died along the way. The end of the war, however, brought another influx of population as the original residents returned and people from different parts of China moved in, partly as the result of the unstable situation in China. The Portuguese, Indian, and Eurasian communities all survived the war. These developments left a permanent mark on the diversity of the population in Hong Kong.

The experience of defeat and captivity also left some long-term impact on the colonial governance. Racial barrier, if not entirely demolished, was loosened after the war. Local Chinese, especially those who had participated in the resistance with the British such as Paul Tsui, entered public service and eventually rose to high ranks. More Chinese representatives were appointed in the legislative and executive councils. The colonial government tried to invite the Chinese population to participate in governance through increasing franchise, although comprehensive political reform in the form of the Young Plan was shelved in 1949. The general attitude changed from one of almost complete segregation to “Co-prosperity of Chinese and British,” as the slogan on the commemorative stamp of the liberation of Hong Kong in 1946 wrote.

Often overlooked, the quick restoration of the international economic importance of the city within months after the end of the war laid the foundation of rapid development for decades. The abrupt end of the war against Japan on 15 August led to a period of chaos and uncertainty in Asia. Compared to the Nationalist reoccupation of mainland China and Taiwan that led to numerous tragedies such as the 228 Incident, Hong Kong was fortunate enough to experience a much less turbulent process. When Japan surrendered, the city was on the verge of starvation and its infrastructure mostly destroyed. Harcourt’s fleet was followed by convoys that brought technicians who restored the infrastructures in days and food that sustained the population and prevented outbreak of unrests. As the head of the British Military Administration admitted, however, the resilience of the residents played perhaps an even more important role in the quick recovery of Hong Kong.

Seventy years after the end of the war, the complexity of the war and its long term impact on Hong Kong are now more clearly understood. Hong Kong was an important international battlefield and its fate was closely related to the Second Sino-Japanese War, the general war in Asia-Pacific, and to a lesser extent the war in Europe. The diverse war experience of the people of different ethnicity and class in Hong Kong is also a strong reminder of the transnational character of this city.

Chi Man KWONG is a Research Assistant Professor at the History Department, Hong Kong Baptist University. One of this latest publications is Eastern Fortress: A Military History of Hong Kong, 1840-1970 (co-authored with Tsoi Yiu-lun) (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2014). Image Credit: CC by BiblioArchives/LibraryArchives /Flickr.

China’s military parade is an error of judgement

Written by Steve Tsang.

Whenever the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) departs from routine protocol, it is usually highly significant. Today’s military parade in Beijing, which marks 70 years since the defeat of Japan in the Second World War, is no exception.

It is only China’s fourth military parade since the Mao era; it is the first time it has held a parade that does not commemorate the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949; it is the first such parade where the world’s heads of state are invited.

It is a bold decision. It is also a major error of judgement. To openly show off its military might in this way will harm rather than aid China’s ambitions to rally support around Asia for its claim to undisputed regional leadership and its efforts to marginalise Japan and reduce American influence in the region.

China’s readiness to assert itself militarily is unnerving its neighbours. Such an overt display of military power clashes with the notion of China’s ‘peaceful rise’. It also signals the definitive departure from Deng Xiaoping’s strategy of downplaying its military capabilities – China is set to showcase its most advanced weaponry, something it has refrained from doing in previous parades.

Those outside China will understandably ask the question: what will this military strength be used for? After all, the boy in the playground with the biggest muscles should have no need to flaunt them. As one of the Chinese government’s own favourite sayings goes: “Listen to other’s words; watch their deeds.” The rest of the world is watching China’s deeds.

But the words the CCP is using are also crucial here. China is not marking an Allied victory and the end of the War in Asia. It is specifically celebrating “the 70th anniversary of China’s victory in the War of Resistance Against Japanese aggression”. In this way the CCP is affirming its historical narrative that China defeated the Japanese under the leadership of the Communist Party.

The Party’s legitimacy rests on popular acceptance of this storyline. In reality, China was one of several countries that fought Imperial Japan and the Nationalists, under Chiang Kai-Shek, did the bulk of the fighting in China. The 30 heads of states attending the parade are in effect validating CCP propaganda, another key reason why so many are staying away.

China is using the parade to send a clear message to the region and the world. It is claiming the right to maintain what it sees as the post-War order: Japan as the defeated aggressor and China as the leading – and responsible – military power in Asia.

This statement reflects China’s soaring confidence and growing assertiveness under its president Xi Jinping despite evidence that economic troubles lie ahead. Every Chinese leader has its own slogan. Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao called for the creation of a ‘harmonious society’ and a ‘harmonious world’. Xi, who came to power in 2013, champions the ‘China dream’, a philosophy that centres on national rejuvenation under a strong military. That’s quite a semantic shift in two years.

Most of East Asia was attacked by Japan in the Second World War. The fact that many of the region’s states are refusing to send top-level political representatives to Beijing underlines their unease at China’s rise.

The scale of this unease is magnified when you consider the unpopularity of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe across Asia. China, though, is squandering the opportunity to amass regional support that this negative sentiment towards Abe presents.

The timing of the parade is problematic for China. Although it was planned months ago, it arrives at a time when economic concerns are growing. On one hand the parade will strengthen nationalist sentiment among many Chinese. But on the other, many will view it as an unnecessary distraction and a sign that Chinese government is not taking the people’s anxiety over the state of economy seriously enough.

The international guest list for the event is a revealing window into China’s relations with the rest of the world – and further evidence that the way in which the CCP has framed it has alienated most leading powers.

The majority of countries that are sending high-level representatives – in particular those that are sending troops to participate in the parade like Mexico, Pakistan, Venezuela and states from Eastern Europe – did not fight Japan in the Second World War. They are seizing the opportunity to show China their political support in return for a furthering of economic ties.

Of the major Western powers, the United States is sending its ambassador to China, Max Baucus – the lowest ranking official it could get away with without delivering a deeply embarrassing snub to China. Britain is sending Kenneth Clarke MP, who has retired from ministerial duties. And while China will make some noise domestically about the attendance of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, it must know that he carries little weight in current UK policy circles.

Even news of the decision by South Korea’s president Park Geun-hye fails to endorse China’s approach. A long-term victim of Japanese aggression in the past, South Korea has more reason than any other country to stand by China against Japan. Yet Park was notably hesitant in accepting the invitation, clearly uncomfortable at China’s posturing and wary of upsetting its long-time ally the United States.

The tone of the commemoration would have been different if China had opted to organise a ‘people’s parade’ to mark the end of the Second World War in Asia instead of a military one to celebrate its victory over Japan – and a greater number of foreign dignitaries may have been prepared to attend.

As it is, the high-profile absentees underline just how far the CCP and Xi Jinping have to travel to realise the ‘China Dream’, which surely depends on winning the trust of its neighbours.

Professor Steve Tsang is senior fellow at the China Policy Institute and head of the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham, UK. This article was originally published in the South China Morning Post on September 1, 2015. Image credit: CC by Philip McMaster/Flickr.

The 70th Anniversary of Japan’s surrender

Written by Hans Van de Ven.

On August 15, 1945, Emperor Hirohito announced in his first ever radio broadcast that he had instructed his cabinet ‘to communicate to the governments of the USA, UK, China, and the Soviet Union that Our Empire accepts the provisions of their Joint Declaration’.

This was the Potsdam Declaration in which the Allies insisted that Japan surrender unconditionally. Emperor Hirohito added that all Japanese now must shoulder ‘the solemn obligation’ to ‘strive for the common prosperity and happiness of all nations’. In Chongqing, President Chiang Kaishek, then China’s leader, responded to Emperor Hirohito’s announcement in his own radio address on the same day, insisting that China should be guided by the Christian imperative ‘do unto others as one would like them do unto you’. He declared that China should ‘treat Japan with generosity and magnanimity’, a policy popularized with the slogan ‘repay evil with kindness’ (以德报怨). Seventy years on, what can we say about how far Japan and China have been able to live by these two solemn expressions of hope?

The first thing to note is that there has been no new war between China and Japan, to the great benefit of both countries. Japan has not been involved in any war at all, having adopted a self-denying constitution. China fought one large war, with the USA and South Korea in the 1950s, as well as smaller ones, with India in the 1960s and Vietnam in the 1970s, but not with Japan. Peace gave Japan the time to rebuild its economy with American assistance immediately after the war, making it one of the world’s most prosperous countries by the 1980s. China followed after Deng Xiaoping initiated his program of reform and opening up in 1978.

This long East Asian peace came about in part because the USA assumed the responsibility to police it, having learned during the Korean War that the price for destroying Communist China, as some initially preferred, would be too high. China and Japan too have worked at maintaining this peace, signing treaties, joining international organizations, developing business links, and promoting scholarly and cultural cooperation. The result is that over the last seven decades the expectation has sunk deep roots that peace rather than war is the normal state of affairs, even if tensions between China and Japan have grown stronger in recent years.

Secondly, both countries have found it difficult to make the present safe from the ghosts of the past. This is true for Japan, where right wingers prefer a new assessment of Japan’s role in WWII and a few deny even the Nanjing Massacre. But it was also very late in the day, only last year, that the PRC adopted 3 September as a national day of commemoration for China’s victory over Japan. This needs explaining.

China could have chosen another date. 9 September was the day when Japan surrendered its forces in China in 1945 in a carefully crafted ceremony that began at 9am. The hope of China’s leaders then surely was to turn the ‘ninth hour of the ninth day of the ninth month’, 9-9-9, in as solemn a moment in the nation’s calendar as ‘the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month’, the date in 1918 upon which the armistice that ended WWI began. When last year China’s leadership opted for 3 September rather than 9 September, it did so, first, because 9 September would have drawn too much attention to the Nationalists, their former enemies. It was to them, not the Communists, to whom the Japanese surrendered in 1945. Second, 3 September is when Victory over Japan Day is celebrated internationally. On that date in 1945, Japan’s highest political and military leaders surrendered to their Allied counterparts in Tokyo. The choice for 3 September is also meant to underscore that China was as important in defeating Japan as its Allies, and to suggest that, like them, it had stood on the side of the good.

China this year is going all out in commemorating the end of WWII because Beijing wants to use WWII to construct a new historical narrative, one in which joint resistance to Japanese aggression stands central, rather than the fight against domestic enemies as it did for so long. The positive side of this turn of events is that it gives a far more dignified space in Chinese society to all those who fought for China as members of the Nationalist government and its armed forces during the War of Resistance. The huge military parade conducted today also is meant to illustrate that China now has the military wherewithal of a great power and so can protect its population properly, important because for the last two centuries China suffered defeat after defeat and invasion after invasion.

This new stress on the significance of WWII, and on China’s place in it, elides significant ways in which WWII in China was different from elsewhere. The concept of the WWII is an American one. In the USA, President Franklin Roosevelt exploited it to mobilize a reluctant US public to support the war and to suggest that it would serve the creation of a post-war world order in line with US values and interests. During WWII, the British talked about ‘The Great War’ or just ‘The War’ and the Soviets about ‘The Great Patriotic War’, while the Chinese called it, as they still do, ‘The War of Resistance against Japan.’ The term WWII became current outside the USA only after the end of the fighting. As one British historian put it, ‘only in 1948 did the British government decide that it had just been fighting the “second world war”’.

There is no doubt of China’s importance in defeating Japanese aggression. It is true that the USA and the USSR delivered the decisive blows in 1945, with the US navy driving the Japanese back across the Pacific and the Soviets crushing Japan’s Kuantung Army in China’s Northeast. But before that China fought Japan virtually alone for many years, in fact paying a heavy price for assisting the UK and the USA in the recovery of Burma. Had China given up, WWII could well have ended very differently. The value of China in the WWII is beyond doubt.

China was different in part because it was internally divided: the Nationalists in Chongqing and the Communists in Yan’an, while bound together in a United Front, competed with each other, increasingly violently so. Local strongmen ruled Yunnan, Guangdong, Hunan, and Shanxi (山西) virtually autonomously. Various other regimes sought to develop a modus vivendi with Japanese overlordship.

China’s WWII, too, was never about the defeat of Japan alone, but also about creating a new China, visions for which were radically different. Serious discussion about what this new China might look like took place among historians, writers, journalists, philosophers, artists, political leaders, and the general public. These differences by 1945 had narrowed down to a choice between the Communists and the Nationalists, the two major forces that remained. In the end, all had to choose between the one or the other.

This explains why, when Japan fell and the USA and the UK declared the war over, the fighting continued in China. The Chinese Communists used WWII to mobilize rural society. Mao Zedong began WWII with around 30,000 troops. By 1945 he directed a force of one million men. The Communists by then controlled much of north China, ruling over some 100 million people. This outcome was the result of Mao’s policy of only waging small-scale guerrilla warfare against the Japanese while letting the Nationalists suffer the brunt of their attacks. There is no doubt that without WWII, the Communists would never have gained power. Mao acknowledged as much when in 1972 he told the visiting Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka to stop apologizing for Japan’s invasion because without it the Communists would still be in the hills.

The Communists were the lucky inheritors of a victory to which they had not contributed a great deal. That is not to say that Beijing is wrong in finally giving WWII proper recognition. The new emphasis on internal reconciliation is far more preferable then what went before. However, the truth of the Communists’ role in WWII and the fact that under its rule so many suffered for so long – the Communists killed far more people than the Japanese – also calls for an attitude of sober humility and historical honesty, qualities that are lacking today.

Hans Van de Ven is Professor of Modern Chinese History at the University of Cambridge. Image credit: CC by paukrus/Flickr.

Abe’s Subtle Apology: Can It Help Japan Become ‘Normal’?

Written by Niv Horesh.

Visitors to Japan can feel this is a country undergoing an identity crisis. After more than two decades of economic stagnation, falling birth rates and unstable governments, the Japanese have slowly become accustomed to the notion that the heady 1980s are long gone.

Back then, amid a real estate and stock exchange boom, there was widespread consternation in the West at the strength of Japanese industry and the cohesion of its society. Manga creativity and the Samurai codex were popularly celebrated far and wide along with the marvels of shinkansen (bullet trains). Lifelong employment, seniority pay and kaizen (continuous improvement) manufacturing slogans were widely cited as distinctly Japanese formulae for success; some economist analysts may have even persuaded the Japanese people that their country was indeed Namba Wan, the loanword for globally winning.

But China’s rise in the 1990s and 2000s, as the Japanese economy slumped into a prolonged recession, has forced the Japanese to reconsider the vitality of their post-war economic miracle. China today is by far a larger economy and holder of foreign currency reserves.  To be sure, most Chinese are infinitely poorer that the average Japanese. Japan’s highly urbanised landscape and wonderfully urbane social fabric still give off the feel of a mighty industrial powerhouse with little visible poverty and exemplary cleanliness extending even to the remotest of chikatetsu public toilets.

Yet, China is nowadays exercising the Japanese mind in ways that would have been unimaginable two decades ago, and as a result some observers have noted greater eagerness on the part of Japanese elites to look culturally closer through Western eyes. That means the obsession of the 1980s with Japanese exceptional identity is passé. To the contrary, Shinzo Abe’s government has set its sights on turning Japan into a ‘normal’ country, and one aspect of that effort is the argument that Japan’s conduct in the lead-up to the Asia-Pacific War was not much different to the West’s colonial outlook in the early 20th century. Another more concrete aspect of this is the move towards rescinding Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, which enshrines pacifism, and turning the Japanese Self-Defence Forces into a fully-fledged army with long-range deployment capabilities.

Abe’s apology for Japan’s wartime conduct delivered this month to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the Asia-Pacific War should be seen in that context. It was at times semantically bold in its expression of regret, and in other places phrased in a somewhat passive voice when describing the causes of wartime suffering. Remarkably, in stark contrast to what has become post-war creed in Germany for example, Abe simultaneously gave vent to right-wing apology fatigue: “We must not let our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologise”.

As noted by eminent Japan specialist Tessa Morris-Suzuki, this was an apology carefully scripted for Western ears, and couched in a hidden grand narrative of historical revisionism, much more than it was a sincere outstretched arm to Japan’s neighbours. Nevertheless, considering that a few months before Abe’s speech it was still not entirely clear whether Abe would offer an apology at all, his speech is a step in the right direction for Japan.

Moreover, Abe’s second-term, foreign policy legacy may ultimately hinge on that apology. This is because Abe’s current moves to rescind Article 9 have touched off a popular furore and are stalled in the Diet. It is not just opposed by Japanese communists, but also by a large swathe of mainstream voters.

Similarly, Abe’s aim to resume nuclear power generation in the face of lingering safety concerns and the haunting memory of the Fukushima disaster is otherwise unnerving voters, as evidenced in popular protests surrounding the reopening of the Sendai Power Plant last week. Abe’s controversial visits to Yasukuni Shrine, where Class A war criminals are honoured, have far from exonerated the venue, and Emperor Akihito has religiously shunned it since acceding to the throne. Most alarmingly, Abe’s approval rates are falling because, despite the Governor of the Bank of Japan’s insistence on the viability of economic recovery, there is no clear sign yet that Abe’s famous ‘three-arrow’ approach has succeeded in pulling Japan out of its prolonged recession.

Apart from economic woes, underlying Japanese insecurity are festering maritime disputes as well as inconvenient longer historical memory not just of the two major Sino-Japanese wars that broke out in 1894 and 1931. After all, in pre-modern times, Japan had for the most part looked up to China culturally. In the context of Asian history, one might therefore contend that Japan as Namba Wan was a mere flash in the pan.

Since the property bubble burst in the late 1980s, the Japanese establishments have lurched between emphatic apologia, a brazen national-revival agenda and a passive-aggressive stance towards China and Korea over wartime remembrance. It is no accident that the first Japanese prime minister to officially apologise was Tomiichi Murayama of the Social Democratic Party (in office 1994-1996). His tenure was unusual in that almost invariably politicians from the right-wing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), or former members of that Party, have governed the country.

Historically, the LDP is a transmutation of the same ‘developmental-state’ elites that acquiesced in Japan’s invasion of China in 1936. However hard it may try to seek emotional affinity with the West nowadays, this LDP near-monopoly on power makes Japan look more akin to its East Asian neighbours than it might like to believe. In fact, one might even argue there is more laudable substance to Taiwan and South Korea’s younger democracies in that in these two, power transitions from right to left have been more sweeping.

Japan has every right of achieving ‘normalcy’ through, amongst other means, embracing that affinity with its East Asian neighbours, Taiwan and South Korea. It is also prudent in hedging against the possibility of China turning aggressive over the next decade. But Japan’s LDP elites have to accept that their country will never be popularly recognised as ‘normal’ by Westerners so long as its leaders’ narrative of the Asia Pacific War is laced with apology fatigue, worst still revisionism. In that sense, Japan will always be compared to how the other defeated powers of that war have come to face their past: Germany and Italy. For these reasons, Abe ought to be congratulated. In his official capacity, he maintained his predecessors’ apology in place, thereby adding to Japanese credibility overall, even if his own personal preferences might be different.

Niv Horesh is Director of the China Policy Institute and Professor of the Modern History of China, the University of Nottingham. Image credit: CC by S Kaiser/Flickr.

The Abe Statement and the politics of war memory in Japan

Written by Edward Vickers.

Since the mid-1990s, successive Japanese premiers have issued expressions of regret for wartime aggression and colonialism. Nevertheless, anti-Japanese nationalism in China and South Korea has reached new heights. Hardly surprising, then, that apology fatigue has set in. Channeling this sentiment in his August 14 statement, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo stated, ‘We must not let our children, grandchildren and even further generations to come… be predestined to apologise.’

The commitment to peace is central to post-war Japanese national identity, buttressed by consciousness of the nation’s unique experience of atomic attack. Japan is a democratic society where rule of law and civil liberties are safeguarded. The country’s determination to play a constructive role in world affairs is demonstrated by its enthusiastic participation in UN programmes and disbursements of overseas aid – of which China has been a prime recipient. Why, then, should Japan feel compelled to apologise to an oppressive Communist Leviathan that challenges the international order and threatens regional peace?

In fact, the ‘Abe Statement’ itself helps explain why Japan remains the object of suspicion and resentment in China and Korea. Abe and prominent cabinet colleagues have repeatedly denied the veracity of widely attested wartime atrocities. The Japanese media, covering his speech, has engaged in endless semantic analysis of his references to ‘aggression’ and ‘colonialism’. Despite acknowledging Japan’s engagement in both, he noted that this was unexceptional in a world dominated by western imperialism, and alluded to Japan’s earlier role in inspiring anti-colonial nationalisms.

The insincerity of any ‘apology’ Abe might utter was transparent even before he opened his mouth; this was a statement issued under duress. But questions of sincerity or morality aside, the willful ignorance that Abe exemplifies and promotes threatens disturbing consequences not just for external relations with Asia, but also for Japan’s internal politics.

The external dimension has drawn most international comment. Chinese and Korean politicians stoke anti-Japan sentiment for their own domestic purposes, but Abe and his right-wing allies afford them endless ammunition – through visits to the Yasukuni Shrine (where convicted war criminals are honoured with other war-dead, and an on-site museum portrays the Asia-Pacific conflict as a heroic struggle for anti-colonial liberation); outright denial of wartime atrocities; and campaigns to revise school textbooks to promote a more ‘patriotic’ account of the war. Foreign observers are entitled to conclude from all this that official Japanese statements of ‘remorse’ or ‘regret’ for the war are two-faced. This does nothing to further regional security.

However, the potential consequences for Japan’s internal political development are perhaps just as serious. In a critique of China’s propagandist distortions of history, The Economist recently described Japanese democracy as ‘deeply entrenched’. But is it? For almost the entire post-war period, Japan has been governed by the Liberal Democratic Party. This has in turn been dominated by the political, and often actual, heirs of the imperialist elites responsible for the disastrous wars of the 1930s-40s. Japan has remained an intensely regimented society, even if collective energies since 1945 have been directed towards peaceable economic rather than militaristic ends.

Invoking visions of a Japan in peril, the Abe administration today seeks to justify measures that are far from ‘liberal democratic’. One of its first acts was to introduce a sweeping official secrets law granting arbitrary power to bureaucrats, and backed by draconian penalties. Official oversight of school textbooks, already stringent, has been further tightened, with coverage of wartime atrocities significantly curtailed in most of the newest editions. Meanwhile, there has been a ramping up of ‘moral education’ in schools, promoting a homogenous, totalizing and uncritical vision of ‘Japanese tradition’.

Nor is Abe’s kulturkampf restricted to schools. The Education Ministry has announced that all ‘national universities’ will henceforth be required to raise the national flag and play the national anthem at key ceremonies. Previously foisted on schools, the extension of these rituals to universities raises serious concerns over academic freedom. Will faculty and students (including thousands of Chinese studying in Japan) be sanctioned, as schoolteachers have been, for refusing to honour the symbols that accompanied Japan’s invasion of Asia?

Even more worrying, perhaps, are attempts to suborn and intimidate the mainstream media. NHK, the state broadcaster, never a paragon of editorial independence, has been placed under the leadership of Momii Katsuto, an Abe associate with similarly disturbing views on wartime history. Momii has declared that NHK should not much ‘deviate from the position of the government in its programming.’ True to his word, NHK programmes commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II have slavishly toed the prime ministerial line. Abe had called for an emphasis on the ‘peaceful achievements’ of post-war Japan, rather than dwelling on the events of the war itself.

NHK is far from alone in its supine political posture. A special edition of the mass circulation right-of-centre periodical, Bungei Shunju, issued to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the war, focuses on key episodes in Japan’s post-war history. Omitting any reflection on the war itself, it commences with a piece by the son of an executed Class A war criminal, celebrating his father’s dignity in adversity and lamenting the vagaries of ‘victor’s justice’.

Right-wing groups associated with Abe and his political allies have also conducted a concerted campaign of intimidation directed at those who expose wartime atrocities. Chief target has been the Asahi Shinbun, which in 2014 admitted the unreliability of one source for its early 1990s reporting on ‘comfort women’. Notwithstanding the mass of other testimony on the military system of forced prostitution, this admission sparked an escalation of right-wing attacks on the liberal media. Many editors appear to have been cowed into submission.

In democratic Japan, how do Abe and his associates get away with this? The answer lies in the depth of popular ignorance of Asia. Few students seriously study modern Asian languages; more Americans than Japanese are currently enrolled on Mandarin courses in China. And historical ignorance remains a central and inescapable challenge. Witness the enormous popularity of the novel The Eternal Zero (Ei-en no Zero), in 2013 also a blockbuster film. Depicting the heroism and self-sacrifice of tokkōtai pilots (i.e. suicide bombers), this is typical in focusing entirely on the struggle with America, ignoring the context of Japan’s bloody aggression in mainland Asia.

Ignorance breeds fear, in turn reinforcing reluctance to engage with the feared object. This vicious circle also renders many Japanese susceptible to the blandishments of crypto-fascists intent on compromising democracy in the name of ‘security’. Perhaps Abe’s attempts to ‘reinterpret’ the constitution’s ‘peace clause’ will overstep the limits of public tolerance. But a coherent, forceful and popular counter to the rightwards drift of Japanese politics has yet to emerge.

To be sure, Chinese depictions of Japan as an active threat to East Asian security are disingenuous and hypocritical. For the Communist Party, such claims distract from a welter of domestic problems, and an army of skeletons in its own cupboard. But with Japanese public discourse on the war as warped as it is, we are entitled to wonder how a ‘free’ Chinese media might report this issue. In Hong Kong, media criticism of Japan has always been more unrestrained than on the mainland.

Far from being an imaginary obstacle to good relations with Asia, conjured up by Japan’s ideological foes, memories of war and imperialism are thus central to Japan’s relationship not only with its neighbours, but with itself. The time for apologies may have come and gone, but the need to remember and confront the past remains as urgent as ever.

Edward Vickers is the co-editor (with Paul Morris and Naoko Shimazu) of ‘Imagining Japan in Post-war East Asia: identity politics, schooling and popular culture’ (Routledge 2013). He is a member of the ‘War Memoryscapes in Asia’ Partnership (‘WARMAP’), funded by the Leverhulme Trust and coordinated by Mark Frost and Daniel Schumacher of Essex University. Image Credit: CC by OECD/Flickr.

From Cairo to Chongqing: Global vs. Local Histories of the Second Sino-Japanese War in the PRC

Written by Adam Cathcart and Wankun Li.

Urged on by Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its arts, scholarship, and regional bureaucracies have gone into overdrive to shape a new version of China’s history during World War II. As the 3 September “Victory Day” march in Beijing approaches, the film The Cairo Declaration has led to a minor storm of domestic criticism, indicating that the drive has not been without its problems. This essay argues that the Cairo Declaration deserves attention with respect to what it tells us about China’s global narrative of the war, and the tension that the new narrative has with traditional historiography as well as local histories.

Situating Cairo 1943 in Current Commemorations

Chinese audiences nationwide have been subjected in recent years to a series of “tribute” movies (献礼片) guided by the Chinese Communist Party. The most well-known such film connected to the commemorations of the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War, The Cairo Declaration, will be premiered on 28th August 2015. Of the three major summits of World War II — Cairo, Yalta and Potsdam — the Cairo Conference of 1943 has the distinction of being the only one to which China was inivited. Chiang Kai-shek led the delegation as China’s main representative, while his wife Song Meiling and a number of important Guomindang generals and foreign affairs officials also attended.

From the standpoint of the current leaders in Beijing, the Cairo conference is useful in emphasizing China’s historical position as a ‘stakeholder’ in global affairs. Using Cairo as a reminder of Japan’s wartime destabilization of East Asia, and as a tangible symbol of US-UK-Chinese cooperation in particular, has become an important part of contemporary Chinese messaging. Many details naturally get lost in this process: Cairo’s disastrously vague formulation of Korean independence “in due course” and, in the case of Yalta, Stalin’s eventual secret deal with the Western powers giving him deep and humiliating concessions in postwar Manchuria. What matters today is that a global audience can be reminded that China sacrificed massive amounts of blood and treasure on the Allied side in World War II. Not only that, but in the process a Chinese domestic audience can be reassured that the world today remembers the destruction caused by Japan during the war, and is on China’s side in making sure the surly forces of Japanese revisionism are not allowed to forget it either.

Tribute or Fiction?

Unfortunately for the CCP, these efforts can go off the rails rather easily in the current media climate. For one thing, external events can interfere with the commemorations — the massive chemical explosion and possible environmental catastrophe happening in one of the country’s biggest ports being a prime example.

It is also possible for the propaganda apparatus to become overzealous and to go over the lines of credibility. Chinese audiences may have very little formal history education about the Cultural Revolution, but the history of the Second Sino-Japanese War, and its global aspects, is understood with great detail. At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, the history of the “War of Liberation” (i.e., the Chinese Civil War) that followed immediately in the wake of the ambivalent victory over Japan is also extremely well known.

With the publication of the Cairo Declaration film posters and the posting of the film trailer online, the director of the film attracted criticism from historians and even the editor of the party-controlled Global Times because he put Mao Zedong as the poster boy in the Cairo Conference instead of Chiang Kai-shek, the actual leader of Republican China during the World War II. The ridiculous poster has become the butt of jokes by many of users of Weibo, the Chinese Twitter, and become a hot topic this week.

As the trailer of the film makes clear, the producers of the film have not gone so far as to send Mao to Cairo in the film, but placing him at the vanguard of establishing the global order in 1943 is a clear stretch. At this point, when he was in his cave in Yanan, Mao had yet to meet a single representative of the American government, and the Dalai Lama, who was not even 10 years old, got more correspondence from the US President. While Mao had written some important anti-Japanese treatises in 1937 and 1938, by the time the Cairo Declaration came around, he was primarily concerned with expanding his inland base area against Nationalist government resistance and calculating his best chances to overtake Chiang Kai-shek after the Japanese surrendered. The United Front was essentially a shell after 1940. Mao was extremely well-informed about how the wider war in Europe, in China, and the Pacific was going, but to depict him as the mental crucible of China’s World War II effort is overreaching.

While it would be easy to mock outright the CCP’s missteps in publicizing the film, or to note the need for historical accuracy as a precondition of reconciliation efforts in East Asia, such criticisms would probably be somewhat redundant. More helpful instead would be an examination of how the Cairo Declaration film represents a tension in between local and global aspects of China’s cultures of war commemoration.

Chongqing as Production Base for a New History

The Cairo Declaration was produced by Chongqing Film Company (重庆电影集团) and August 1st Film Studio (八一电影制片厂), and was shot in Chongqing’s Liangjiang New Area, which is the key national development and opening zone in the Southwest of China. One of only three such zones nationwide, Liangjiang is matched up with Tianjin Binhai New Area (of recent explosion notoriety) and Shanghai Pudong New Area. As the director of The Cairo Declaration said, Chongqing is a unique city possessing rich historical resources about the Second Sino-Japanese War in China. The role of Chongqing in World War II is increasingly attracting attention from the central government in Beijing. As such, the city is an ideal venue for examining the contemporary Chinese government’s understanding of the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (抗日战争), which is a more general name of the Second Sino-Japanese War in China, from the Chongqing local history.

As the wartime capital from 1938 until May 1946, Chongqing today possesses innate advantages in propagandizing the correct direction (正确方向) of the Chinese anti-fascist topic. From 1938 to 1944, there were more than 268 air rids conducted by the Imperial Japanese Army Air Service against Chongqing, with more than 11,500 bombs dropped. The air raid of 5 June 1941 was one of the most notorious; after three hours of bombing, some 4,000 residents who had hidden in a tunnel at the city center of Chongqing were injured and killed because of asphyxiating and stampede. The iconic photo of these victims is sometimes mislabeled online to represent victims of the Nanking Massacre — another event Xi Jinping has taken pains to re-highlight — but its symbolic power remains undimmed.

In the 1980s, the Memorial of the Chongqing Bombing Tragedy was built on the site of the tunnel. To commemorate the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender, a proposal for building a larger museum to the bombing has been put forth for consideration by the Chongqing Government recently. Another museum in the city represents a more heroic narrative, one symbolizing of Sino-American friendship during the war.

Chongqing’s Museum of the Flying Tigers, the American Volunteer Group of the Chinese Air Force is nestled above the Yangtze River in the old headquarters of General Joseph Stillwell. That Museum has become a regular stop for American visitors and diplomats in China, who are able to admire a large bronze bust of the man known as “Vinegar Joe” and anchor contemporary business ties between Chongqing and the US in a longer history of friendship.

The Chinese Communist Party’s full-on absorption of Republican history, however, is not without its local tensions. Chongqing’s Republican-era history as a Guomindang stronghold has long been painted with dark hues in traditional Communist Party narratives. One of the most well-known communist revolutionary novels in China, Red Crag, is about the story of communist prisoners, who were living in Chongqing Zha Zidong, a jail set up by the Guomindang Government for communist members in 1940s, and were tortured to death by the Guomindang warden. Putting forward unmistakable themes of anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism, the novel and the Zha Zidong Museum contain a strongly negative portrayal for the Sino-American Cooperative Organization, which gathered intelligence for use against Japan during World War II.

The same situation can be found in the Red Crag Village Museum (红岩村), on the outskirts of Chongqing. This was the office of the Communist Party and Eighth Route Army during the war. Although it could be uncomfortably re-interpreted as a symbol of the United Front with the Guomindang, the extensive museum on the site emphasizes the struggle against the then-national government. Mao Zedong lived here during the Chongqing talks with Chiang Kai-shek in 1945, but the site was also used by Zhou Enlai to command the underground communist agents against Guomindang, who are the subject of another museum in the city’s hills. For any Chinese visitors to the Red Crag Village Museum, a full reorientation of the museum’s emphasis done solely in the name of depicting the Chinese Communist Party as a loyal foot soldier in the United Front against Germany and Japan from 1937-1945 would be not just arbitrary, but nonsensical.


Chinese diplomats and media outlets today will continue to spread the word about China’s role at the Cairo conference, just as in previous years they have emphasized China’s role at the Tokyo Trials, and the CCP’s justice in trying Japanese war criminals. Left out of these discussions will be any mention of the tensions that the Chinese Communist Party itself was undergoing with the Guomindang during the war, let alone the attempted destruction of the Guomindang during the punishing years of civil war that followed essentially immediately after the Japanese surrender. In reality, Chiang Kai-shek was busy in Cairo advancing China’s war effor while Mao Zedong was busy with the Rectification Movement in Yan’an to cement his leading role in the Party.

Adam Cathcart is lecturer in Chinese history at the University of Leeds. Wankun Li is a PhD student in history at the University of Leeds, with a focus on Chongqing. Image Credit: CC by National Archives/Flickr.


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