April 16, 2005

The Specter of Communism

Ian Hamet, a blogger living in Shanghai, reports on anti-Japanese demonstrations there earlier this week. Demonstrations, evidently encouraged by the government, also took place in Beijing and other Chinese cities. Hamet includes a rough translation of an e-mail encouraging people to march on the Japanese consulate. Sample tips for demonstrators:

When through the shops and companies Japanese invested, donít give them too much destruction. Because Japanese will ask for the pay to the government later, so everyone at that time should be rational....When burning the Japanese flags and pictures of Koizumi, please be safe, donít burn your own clothes by mistake.

There is a humorous aspect to this. Obviously television coverage of the peaceful demonstrations in Ukraine and Lebanon made an impression in China, and someone is clearly anxious lest the attempt to use the same means to a different end lead to embarrassing pictures. More seriously, there is a hint in this development that China is after all bumping up against the problem faced by the Soviet Union in its final years.

The problem is the past. Chinese schoolchildren are taught from an early age about the horrors and humiliations of the Japanese presence in China that ended almost 60 years ago, much as Soviet students were well schooled about Nazi outrages during what is still known as the Great Patriotic War. They know much less about the history of the ruling party in their own country -- a history that features a really astonishing amount of bloodshed and the sacrifice of millions of ordinary Chinese to the whims of the Party.

Hamet is convinced that Chinese leaders are playing a deep, brilliant game by attempting to fan and harness popular passions and resentments at the same time. I'm not sure I agree. It wasn't just the failure of central planning or the bloody stalemate in Afghanistan that undermined the legitimacy of Soviet Communism, but the slowly spreading knowledge among educated Russians of what had been done in the Party's name. Horror can be a corrosive force. Knowledge of the past can be limited, and controlled, but not forever. What will happen when the Chinese now being urged to demonstrate against part of the past start asking about the part the Party has striven to hide from them all these years?

Of course, China is not Russia. The Soviet Union in Gorbachev's time was exhausted, falling further behind the West every year; China today is vibrant, dynamic, and full of possibilities. And it may be true after all that death and oppression on a gigantic scale make less of an impression on the Chinese mind than on the Western one, as long as it is inflicted by a legitimate -- that is, by a Chinese -- authority and not by a foreign power.

Yet something so potent, and potentially unsettling as the past would seem to require handling with great care, not clever manipulation in the service of short-term objectives like keeping Japan off the UN Security Council. A time of prosperity might be the time to start dealing more honestly with what Communism did in China, in the same way one is better off trying to defuse a time bomb well before the time is up. We ought to worry about whether popular resentment against foreigners could get out of control, but perhaps the Chinese Communist Party leadership ought to worry that trying to stir people up about the past now could be dangerous to itself later.

Thanks to Glenn Reynolds for the Hamet link. Once again, despite the, ahem, technical difficulties that have prevented him from updating his blogroll, Instapundit manages to cast into the blogosphere and pull up something interesting.

Posted by at April 16, 2005 05:12 PM | TrackBack (36)

good post, sir.

Posted by: praktike at April 17, 2005 01:13 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

An excellent point about handling the past. Kruschev did well to at least let his Party in on some of Stalin's nastiness. What saddens me is that we live in a relatively open society, and yet most Americans remain blissfully ignorant of the depth and breadth of horrors our government has perpetrated over the years. Not that those ills should be the sole or even primary definer of America's identity. But they should be learned and examined and taken to heart.

Posted by: Rob at April 17, 2005 02:25 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"most Americans remain blissfully ignorant of the depth and breadth of horrors our government has perpetrated over the years."

I don't think that's true.

Posted by: praktike at April 17, 2005 04:01 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

China should be considered a dangerous threat to the US and the world. She is not a threat because she is powerful; she is a threat because it is powerful and undemocratic. The first attribute (power) is capacity for harm. The second attribute (undemocratic) is the potential for harm.

Being undemocratic and oligarchic, China's government need an ideology to sustain itself, to legitimize the country unfreedom. Having abandon socialism, the Politburo is forced to adopted nationalism as a slogan. Nationalism carry within it the seed of facism, xenophobia and other negative attribute. For China, it manifest in the longing for the glory of the "Middle Kingdom," an era of Chinese hegemony and supremacy.

This is obvious through her treatment of Taiwan and her bullying attitudes toward smaller neighbors. The "text books" incident direct against Japan is another example of China dangerous nationalism. The China accomodationists should realize that it will never get better. China will continue to be belligerent and aggresive. To expect the Chinese to act rational is ignorant. They never will. Nationalism is never rational. The leadership may not believe in it and use it only as a tool. But one day it will out of control. The only solution is liberal democracy in China. It will replace the ideology of collective nationalism with individual freedom.

Posted by: Minhduc Phan at April 17, 2005 07:26 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I think the U.S., Japan and Taiwan for starters should boycott the China Olympics in 2008.

and we should show the tiananmen square masacre on tv all over again in CNN and other japanese and taiwanese tv just to remind the chinese what protest rallies are allowed (obviously vs. Japan) and what rallies can get you "killed".

Posted by: john marzan at April 17, 2005 07:51 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The problem is, how are the Chinese people going to learn about their past?

I think what is going to cause the Chinese government real trouble is present problems like unemployment, corruption, pollution, the failing health system, and government mismanagement. The internet is playing a big role here. The government has blocked links to unwanted websites outside the country, but there is a great deal of communication among citizens on all these problems.

The government is playing the nationalist card because it lacks a political ideology. If there is a big crisis, like the economy stalls out, then it will be in big trouble.

Posted by: Les Brunswick at April 17, 2005 11:05 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

My thoughts exactly Les. We have never seen anything quite like China in modern times and it is difficult to do anything but speculate about its future. But I tend to believe that China is entering an era of increasing disequilibrium as economic prosperity clashes with environmental and health disintegration. In democratic countries there is a way to resolve this conflict. In China no such mechanism exists.

Posted by: PeterArgus at April 17, 2005 11:53 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

For what its worth Chinese-American relations will be in my opinion, one of the critical areas in the wider arena of International Relations in the years to come. China's intentions concerning Taiwan are also quite clear, as are the US's at least for the time being. So should Taiwan act to seek full independence from China, then Push will come to shove and if the US supports Taiwan and doesn't back down (which it not a path of action that is guaranteed of course), then things may well get very ugly.

At the moment America has the upperhand (if somewhat stretched at the moment) in terms of military and economic supremacy - but with barely a 5th of the population I cannot see this position remaining the same in the long term.

Given both nations are prone to being somewhat belligerent in terms of foreign policy and relations, and both being quite clear that their National interests supercede International interests, its not entirely inconceivable that a new cold/hot war could escalate in time - with Taiwan as a likely flashpoint. I truly hope not, but Chinese-American relations in my view given my above comments are the most likely area where a conflict of truly serious proportions could break out.

Which isn't to say the nasty little dictatorships in North Korea, Iran or elsewhere could cause problems, or that they should be ignored in the interests of concentrating on relations with China. But should China and America come into conflict (with Taiwan being a conceivable flashpoint) then it will make Iraq and other recent conflicts look like backyard fisticuffs.

Just my 2c worth!

Posted by: Aran Brown at April 18, 2005 03:33 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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