My blood chilled and my heart warmed (slightly)
As I mentioned at the tail end of my post on the Anti-Japanese Protests on the 18th of September, I saw things that inspired me, and some that filled me with a deep feeling of sadness. Let’s start with the bad and end on the slightly more positive one.
As the protests over ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands rolled on, anti-Japanese protesters were treated like heroes by the majority of onlookers as they made their way along the path cleared for them through the city.
About halfway along the journey, the crowd of protesters made their way past a primary school that had just been let out at the end of the day. Children and their parents flocked to the barricade in the middle of the road to cheer on the protesters, and here’s where I encountered something that chilled me to the bone, and made me wonder if there is any hope for tolerance, understanding, and a sense of humanity in general to be a part of mainland China’s culture…
Urged by their parents, the children were calling out chants including “Kill all the Japanese devils” and “Small Japan: Kill kill kill”. In the prime of their innocence, children in China are being filled with hatred for the Japanese that will shape their worldview for the rest of their lives.
Now I understand that Japan is not an innocent victim in all of this. The atrocities committed during the second world war in China are horrific and undeniable, particularly with infamous events such as the massacre in Nanjing. That, however, is in the past. Perhaps it is human nature to hold resentment for things done in the past, but nothing is as strong as the pure seething hatred directed toward Japanese people that I’ve experienced during my time in China since 2001.
I ask my students why they hate the Japanese so strongly, and they refer to war atrocities of the past, and the Japanese government’s censorship of details of such atrocities in school textbooks (something that sparked violent protests similar to the present ones in China just a few years ago). I ask them “If my father killed somebody before I was born, am I also guilty of that crime?”, but appealing to logic is not useful when their hatred is not one based on logic, but on growing up in an atmosphere where the “evil” of the “Japanese devils” (日本鬼子) is an assumed truth.
Most Chinese – whether they admit it openly or not – are not blindly supportive of their own government. They know there is widespread corruption and they know the level of control exceeds what could be called reasonable (at least that’s the general sentiment here in the south). So I ask them if they should be blamed for anything unjust or corrupt that their own government does, and of course they say they should not be held accountable for their government’s actions. This may leave them without defense if their argument is about the censorship of textbooks in Japan, but they will still try to fight the rational argument. Why? Because Japan is just evil, at least that’s what they were brought up to believe.
Now I’m not saying that ALL Chinese are racist and hate the Japanese, but there is certainly a widespread anti-Japanese sentiment that is independent of any specific events that may occur in the process of negotiating Sino-Japanese relations. The events merely bring that sentiment to the surface.
I find it quite interesting, since Chinese – especially younger generations – seem so keen to emulate everything that is Japanese. Everything from food to music to manga and anime to fashion to the obsession with karaoke – Japanese influence permeates modern Chinese culture in a similar way to that in which Chinese culture influenced Japanese back in the Tang dynasty (or thereabouts – I’m no historian). And then there’s the Japanese made products that until this last week had been must-have items… but don’t get me started on that, that’s something I have in mind for another post: photographic evidence of the extent to which Chinese modern culture is influenced by, or at times largely based on Japanese culture.
I think the Chinese who hold strong resentment toward Japanese people should take a leaf from Vietnam’s book. I have spent a lot of time visiting Vietnam and trying to understand its culture, and being married to a Vietnamese girl I have some insight into the Vietnamese psyche through my conversations and interactions with her along with her family and friends. The thing I admire the most is their ability to let bygones be bygones. Vietnam’s history is one of invasion after invasion, notably the French and in a way, the Americans also. Let’s consider the latter. Americans tried to force their will on a nation despite the fact that the majority of people supported Ho Chi Minh and wanted the Southern government done away with (my wife’s family are from the south, and only a minority down there wanted to keep the elitist Southern government – the wealthy who had a lot to lose, but most people were dirt poor). Thankfully the people of the nation got their way in the end, but not before countless atrocities had been committed by US forces and their allies. Napalm wiped out much of their food supplies, agent orange still affects people to this day (its effects can remain unseen for generations, then suddenly a child is born deformed), and there are still issues with landmines and undetonated bombs littered throughout the country. War is ugly, and I’m sure all sides committed ugly acts, but ultimately, what the US forces were directed to perform was little short of a complete Genocide (I recommend Vietnam Inc for anyone interested in reading the views of a third party present during the war and some amazing photography of horrific events). Now I’m not supporting communism, I’m all for democracy (although I’m not a fan of excessive capitalism, but there seems to be no viable alternatives), but my point comes next: Vietnamese people – even living survivors of the war itself – generally hold no animosity toward people such as the French or Americans. Actually I’ve found most of the Vietnamese I’ve met there welcomed me with open arms, even though Australians may have been responsible for killing relatives of theirs just one or two generations back during the war.
It is admirable to suffer great wrongs and not hold it against subsequent generations. That is something I had once hoped China could learn to do also. But on that day, hearing young children chanting that the evil Japanese should be killed, and seeing them urged to say it louder by their parents, that hope for a tolerant, mature nation died in me. I felt sad for them that they will have to walk with such ugly hatred in their hearts simply because they grew up with that being the norm.
But it wasn’t all bad on that day. I did see a slight glimmer of hope…
The protests on the 16th had seen lootings and attacks on Japanese businesses and even on Chinese businesses with Japanese connections, factories were set ablaze and it was an ugly day overall. Japanese branded cars – most likely made in Chinese factories by Chinese workers and owned by Chinese citizens – were trashed and overturned. On the 18th, however, as I reported in the previous post, was much more low key, at least in Guangzhou. But what really made me feel positive was the “protest protesters” I saw. They were not saying the protesters should not express their ideas, but they held signs stressing the importance of refraining from violence or vandalism. They advocated expressing one’s opinions in a peaceful, rational, humane manner.
It would have taken some fortitude to face what potentially could have been a volatile mob with their message of restraint, and I saw a slight glimmer of hope in their presence. I was saddened, though by their feeling the necessity to hide their identity, while the hate-filled crowd were loud and proud.
I guess the main thing to take away from it all is that it’s not a simple issue. I cannot say that Chinese are racist, I cannot say that Chinese people hate the Japanese. Nothing is black and white with this kind of thing, and with a population of around 1.4 billion, for any generalisation there’s bound to be a few million exceptions, and that’s if it’s just a small proportion that don’t follow the rule. But what I can say is that unless there is some change in the education – both formal and at home – that children receive, there will always be tension between China and Japan, as there will continue to be an underlying resentment that will always be simmering just below the surface.