The Debate

China Has Its Own Problems With History

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The Debate

China Has Its Own Problems With History

Beijing’s treatment of history should be scrutinized as well.

China Has Its Own Problems With History

A Chinese military parade in 2009.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Jian Kang

On September 3, political leaders in Beijing will convene a massive military parade to commemorate the victory of allied forces over Japan in World War II. What will be on display for the world to see, in addition to 10,000 Chinese troops and their modern military equipment, is the Chinese propaganda apparatus in full gear. What will be missing is a fully accurate depiction of the circumstances surrounding the Chinese victory – and we should be offended to the point of objecting. In fact, China’s distortion of history should not go unnoticed.

U.S. officials working on Asia have heard a lot about “history” this year from Chinese counterparts. It is understandable, given the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, that the Chinese would ask for some reflection on those events. And there is no doubt that most Chinese are sincere in wanting a full and accurate account of the actions of the Japanese Imperial Army during the war.

But Chinese interlocutors would have us believe that only the Japanese struggle with facing their past. The truth is that they are not alone; the worst offenders in distorting, re-writing, or in many cases nullifying history for political purposes are the Chinese themselves. This bears more scrutiny because these practices remain largely in effect and are extremely consequential today.

China’s own skeletons in the closet

While the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) authorities are eager to discuss aspects of history around the period between 1931 and 1945, they are much less willing to candidly discuss the period between 1949 and the present. And for good reason: one of the tragic realities of the CCP era is that more Chinese people died unnecessary deaths from CCP authoritarian rule than at the hands of foreign occupiers during the war in the Pacific. The Great Leap Forward alone accomplishes this, but one can also add the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square Massacre for a mind boggling total of avoidable, unnecessary deaths due to CCP policies. This is not a happy contest, and not meant to minimize Japanese treatment of the Chinese people during the war. But we would be wise to keep proper perspective when engaged on “history issues.”

Many Americans, to include myself, have visited the museum attached to Yasakuni Shrine in Tokyo and emerged with an uneasy feeling regarding the museum’s treatment of World War II. And many of us have been moved to raise our concerns with Japanese government officials. But how many Americans tour Chinese museums and feel compelled to protest their treatment of history to Chinese authorities? The National Museum of China helps to form one of the outer edges of Tiananmen Square – yet ironically, makes no mention of the events of June 4, 1989 in the very same Tiananmen Square. Zhao Ziyang’s portrait is missing from the display of former General Secretaries of the CCP. And the tragedies associated with the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution receive no mention.

Does China’s treatment of history matter to us today? Of course it does. The people who understand this fact most of all are the leaders of the CCP, which is precisely why they work so hard at suppressing historical truth. And it matters every bit as much as Japan’s treatment of history. Yet there is virtually no international pressure on Chinese leaders to address their shortcomings.

Sino-Japanese tensions are running high and there is risk of a military conflict in which the U.S. would be involved. The CCP is doing all in its power to highlight Japan’s worst days, and minimize its past 70-year history of constructive, peaceful contributions to the Asia-Pacific region. Last year alone, the Chinese regime promulgated two new national holidays commemorating Japanese aggression. How can there be rapprochement when all efforts are dedicated to vilifying Japan’s past?

Covering up Japan’s contributions and popularity

It is entirely possible that Chinese sentiments toward Japan would be different if Beijing-mandated text books gave fair coverage to Japan’s tremendous contributions to China’s development the last few decades. Japanese official development assistance (ODA) to China began in 1979. From that time to the present, approximately $26 billion in loan aid (so-called yen loans), and $2.4 billion in grant aid in technical cooperation have been implemented. And these figures are a mere fraction of the foreign direct investment Japan’s private sector has poured into China, which was over $35 billion in 2014 alone.

These figures speak for themselves as facts on the ground. To take it a step further, how can we know that a more accurate accounting of Japan’s recent past could really make a difference with respect to popular views of Japan in China? Because it has made a difference virtually everywhere else in the world. Last year Japan was ranked as the most admired and popular country in Asia according to BBC polling. This was nothing new, since it has taken the top spot every year since the BBC began such polls.  The fact that Chinese views of Japan are so far below the regional average (and the global average) suggests something is impacting the results. In fact, that ‘something’ is China’s party and government apparatus, which are dedicated to promoting a negative image of Japan. To do that, they actively distort Japan’s very positive qualities and contributions to China and the world.

Influencing policy through political warfare

China’s historical perversions affect other areas where the U.S. has interests, such as Taiwan. Most American officials often (and mistakenly) repeat the Chinese mantra that “Taiwan is an inalienable part of Chinese territory.” But how many American officials know that out of the last 400 years of Taiwan’s recorded history, Taiwan was governed by authorities on Mainland China for less than ten years? This has undeniably been to the benefit of the people of Taiwan. Spared the ravages of CCP rule, Taiwan has developed into a modern, successful democracy with a thriving market economy, respect for human rights, and religious freedom. Taiwan is a model global citizen. Is it appropriate that we tolerate menacing Chinese threats (to include nuclear threats) to maintain historical fictions that only serve the CCP’s interests?

The CCP’s attempts to mold history to their liking affects the U.S. in even more direct ways. General Secretary Xi Jinping and others have warned the Chinese against “historical nihilism” and describe critiques of the CCP as a Western plot to undermine the Communist Party and to throw China into chaos. To put another way, unless the U.S. embraces and endorses the CCP’s version of its history, we cannot have a trusting relationship that will enable bilateral cooperation. That is the offer on the table for us from Beijing’s leaders.

Returning to the Chinese celebration on September 3, perhaps we should not let this pass by as an amusing spectacle. Rather, our government and other experts should call out the Chinese leaders for what they are actually engaging in – political warfare directed at our allies, our friends and us. Our ally Japan will be targeted for events that occurred long ago, and be denied due credit for its positive contributions over the last 70 years. Our friend and security partner, Taiwan, will have its role supplanted, despite the fact that it was Republic of China forces that suffered 90 percent of the casualties at the hands of the Japanese.  The Chinese People’s Liberation Army did little fighting and only accounted for 10 percent of the total war casualties. And Washington will be on the receiving end of implicit threats from the forces on display. Nearly 200 Western historians signed an open letter urging Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to seek “an accurate and just history of World War II in Asia.” The same standards for assessing historical accuracy should be applied to Chinese history as well.

Randall Schriver is the President/CEO of the Project 2049 Institute. He formerly served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia. Follow the Institute on Twitter at @Project2049 and #InfluenceOps for analysis on Chinese messaging.