China Refuses To Let History Be

November 7th, 2000

The recent visit to Japan by Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji has certainly created a favorable impression among the Japanese — a contrast with Chinese President Jiang Zemin’s visit two years ago — but it has had no significant politi cal impact on public opinion in this country.

Unfortunately for Zhu, his trip was overshadowed by other front-page news: the political upheaval in Yugoslavia, the violent clashes in the Middle East, the announcement of a possible visit to North Korea by U.S. President Bill Clinton, and the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to South Korean President Kim Dae Jung.

In TV interviews here, Zhu projected an impressive image, fielding questions with poise and a refined sense of humor. But he fell short of improving in any marked degree the prevailing mood between Japan and China. If he succeeded, it is because he played it safe. He tried not to offend the many Japanese who dislike China — a smoldering feeling of bitterness that could have flared had he not been careful about his words.

The low-key visit, it seems to me, reflected a sort of ambivalence in Chinese policy toward Japan. Beijing’s immediate objective was to avoid any trouble with Tokyo that might hold up official development assistance. In the long run, however, Beijing appears uncertain about how how to deal with Japan. Yet it sent a trump card emissary in the person of Zhu.

The issue on which China appears most ambivalent, and one that poses the biggest obstacle to long-term Japan-China relations, concerns the questions of “history and apology” (what Japan did before and during World War II and how it expresses remorse for that). At a press conference before the trip, Zhu said he “will not offend the Japanese people on the history issue.” In an interview here, however, he said that back home he “received hundreds of critical comments for being too soft (on Japan).” Thus he revealed, if unwittingly, that Beijing’s position on this issue is undecided.

In the same interview, Zhu said Japan “has not yet offered any apology in an official document.” This amounts to demanding, albeit in polite language, that Japan make a written apology to China.

This written apology issue was the direct reason for the dismal failure of Jiang’s visit to Japan in November 1998. He insisted strongly that Japan should apologize for its past wrongdoings in a joint statement, as this country did to South Korea’s Kim, who had visited here the month before. With that, Kim promised that South Korea would let bygones be bygones. In fact, in the years that followed he kept that promise. In the meantime he embraced trilateral cooperation among Japan, South Korea and the United States under the so-called Perry Process and drastically improved relations with Japan. On that basis, he has accomplished the historic feat of bringing a rapprochement in inter-Korean relations.

By contrast, Jiang, while demanding a written apology, exhorted the Japanese not to forget history’s lessons. The demand was rejected by then Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, yet Jiang insisted upon it. That is why his visit failed.

In saying much the same thing again and again, Zhu is probably trying to defend Jiang’s failed trip. At any rate, the Zhu statement is an indication of Beijing’s wavering attitude toward Japan.

It is about time that China recognized the current of history. In a war each side claims it is fighting for justice. This is especially true about modern “total” warfare, because the people won’t follow their leaders unless they are told that is the case. But once the war is over, only the victor claims justice, and it can make full use of its triumph in dealing with the vanquished and in educating its own people.

That is a privilege only victors can enjoy, but it cannot be used forever. Over time — usually within the span of a generation or some 30 years — historians describe only the hard facts, leaving out old grudges of the past.

In Japan’s case, half a century after the end of World War II the history issue is still being debated. That is unusual. One reason for this is that Japan has not involved itself in any war in the postwar period. Another reason is that the past conduct of Japan, a World War II ally of Germany, is discussed almost every time the Holocaust — a historical crime unrelated to the war itself — is discussed. But Japan’s case falls under a completely different category: that of civilian suffering in the course of a war, such as Hiroshima and Dresden, or Soviet conduct in Berlin and Manchuria, and the like.

But these are not the main reasons. Even under these circumstances the history issue ceased to exist for Japan about one generation after its defeat. The direct reason is that in the 1980s, Japan’s leftist forces and the media, which has an anti-establishment bias, dug up the nation’s wartime activities, quite often without any real evidence, in an attempt to extract critical reactions from neighboring countries.

To my knowledge, in 1980, for example, a generation after the war’s end, no newspapers and magazines, neither in Japan nor in countries such as China, America and South Korea, carried comments and articles on Japan’s wartime past and its apologies.

Everything went awry after the 1982 textbook issue, which itself started with an erroneous report. The monuments reportedly built or displayed in various parts of China in memory of wartime atrocities, and the anti-Japanese books that fill the shelves of bookstores were done almost entirely after the textbook issue and never existed in the ’80s.

I often say to my Chinese friends: The Japanese who brought up the issue and fanned anti-Japanese feelings are primarily responsible. But most of those Japanese are now silent in fear of public opinion here. If Chinese keep saying the same thing vis-a-vis Japan, they will be left behind the times.

Around the time that issue created a stir, then Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita said it “should be left to the judgement of future historians.” But that kind of cool thinking did not prevail in those days. Now it does. Indeed, Japan’s public opinion has changed so much in the past two years that it might even resist a Chinese attempt to follow the example of Kim.

China should recognize the current of history and the natural shift in Japan’s popular sentiment. On that basis, it should map out a consistent long-term policy toward Japan.