If I were to chose the point where modern Chinese history began it would not be the overthrow of the Imperial Dynasty and the establishment of the Republic in 1911; no, it would be even more precise than that – it would be 4 May, 1919.
It was on that day that students demonstrated on the streets of
Beijing, protesting against the Treaty of Versailles, specifically the transfer of the German concessions in Shandong Province to Japan, contrary to past promises. Protest spread across the country, the first spontaneous and populist movement in the country’s history, an upswing of Chinese nationalism far more significant than the events of 1911.
Anger over past grievances, particularly over grievances at the hands of
Japan, continues to be an important measure of Chinese national feeling. The Japanese are also good at remembering past sorrows…at least when it comes to their own. It's not long since the annual commemoration of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, attended this year by the grandson of President Harry Truman, the man who ordered the attack.
I’m sure there’s lots of genuine feeling here, a desire that history should be remembered and never be repeated. I might feel more sympathy but for the fact that I see
Hiroshima and Nagasaki used, abused, if you like, as alibis, conveniently wiping out inconvenient memories. Where is the sorry and wringing of hands, the Chinese might very well, ask, over the Rape of Nanking in 1937, one of the worst atrocities in Japanese imperial history? That single incident left more dead than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.
Japanese school texts make fulsome mention of the atomic bombs. They are a bit more reticent when it comes to other aspects of the the country’s history between 1931 and 1945. Virtually no mention at all is made of the war, as John Dower highlights in his recently published Ways of Forgetting, Ways of Remembering:
Japan and the Modern World. Japanese conservatives are a little less reticent, passing off Imperial Japan’s rampage across Asia as a “holy war” against Western colonialism.
That’s not how the Chinese see it. They have their own memories of Western colonialism, but Japanese colonialism is much more immediate in the national mind. The spirit of 4 May 1919 has never really gone away. It was revived again recently, when thousands of people took to the streets across the country to protest against
Japan. The 19 August Movement, if I can call it that, was triggered by a long-standing dispute between China and Japan over the uninhabited Senkaku or Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea.
Like the May 4 Movement, the demonstrations appear to have been quite spontaneous in nature, sparked off by micro-blogging sites. There clearly had to be some kind of official sanction – the Communist Party is not averse to occasional expressions of the vox populi – but the authorities are concerned least matters get out of control. Nationalism in
China is a dangerous tiger, ridden at some peril.
Now directed against
Japan, the anger could just as easily turn inwards as the economy begins to show serious signs of slowing down. It’s particularly sensitive as the Communist Party heads towards its eighteenth national Congress in October, when a major change in the present leadership is expected.
China and Japan the past is not a foreign country; it’s part of a naturalised present. They do things much the same as they have always done.