Commentary Project


Editors Note

H-US-Japan is pleased to announce its new Commentary Project. Prominent scholars, journalists, and professionals contribute regular commentaries for H-US-Japan regarding various subjects of US-Japan relations. Here is the first commentary by Mr. Victor Fic. We will soon make a special homepage for H-US-Japan Commentary. We will let you know the URL as soon as we are ready. If you wish to contribute to H-US-Japan as a commentator, please send us your CV, experience, writing sample, and your major fields. Thank you.


Jiang Zemin: Unlikely Defender of Truth

By Victor Fic, Seoul

Jiang Zemin is obviously angry at Japan for not forthrightly apologizing to China over the war, but inwardly he should thank his taciturn host: it makes the dull, unelected president of a Communist dictatorship look like a passionate exponent of honesty and candor. Until the failed Tokyo summit, Jiang could never play such a role because this former engineer has a mechanical style, and especially because of his defense of the bloody rampage in Tiananmen Square. However, Japan's energetic conservatives and apathetic public almost make the voluble and unrelenting Jiang look like a Bobby Kennedy with chopsticks.

He is correct, of course, in insisting that the insincere and redundant words Tokyo proffers are not enough. They fall far short of what is required, and the many years that the Chinese have waited for a proper apology only highlights Japanese intransigence. Overall, the anti-apology crowd is faultable on an dismayingly large number of issues:

Humanistically, they display an inept understanding of Chinese sensibilities. The Japanese army killed millions of Chinese and raped countless women; since then, pseudo-apologies inflame opinion. According to the Japan Times, July 16, 1995, 96.8% of the young Chinese polled by the China Youth News said that they were "angry" about the war, and 90% insisted that they felt "very angry" over Japan's denials. Could those who oppose a proper apology think that all or most of these Chinese are masochists, or pretenders, or dupes of the Communist Party? It appears that the Japanese panjandrums who so understand export strategy cannot understand their neighbours -- or even human nature. On the moral plane, Japanese conservatives prove that a hard line often begins with a hard heart. During their war of resistance, Mao's soldiers were instructed to treat captured enemy troops well. Few Japanese prisoners were tortured, most were rehabilitated (albeit they were made into Maoists), and they were fed decent meals. Surely Japan could match this kindness shown in the midst of savagery with decency in times of peace? It appears that the Japanese moral code does not truly include the principle of reciprocity.

When the Communists came to power, moreover, they decided not to press Japan for war reparations. This must have been an emotionally painful policy for them. If the Chinese leaders who saw their people brutalized could swallow so much of their pride, then why can't Japanese leaders swallow so little of their ego? It appears that their ego is supreme. In addition, Japanese hard-liners show that they are diplomatic bumblers. Didn't Kim Dae Jung's allegedly successful trip to Tokyo double the expectation that Jiang would get at least what Kim did, maybe more? It appears that Japanese diplomats fail to heed the very message they send to China.

On cultural awareness, the anti-apology faction falls short. How can the Chinese father be denied his apology from the Japanese middle brother when the Korean youngest brother is propitiated? It appears that Japan's guardians of Confucian orthodoxy are forgetting some basic verities. And what about foreign policy expertise? Japanese hard liners may have ensured that Chinese leaders seeking legitimacy must put rice in the bowl, arm the military, retain ownership of Taiwan, and stand up to Japan. How does Japan gain by becoming a card that Chinese leaders can play in the power-based poker which is Chinese politics? It appears that Japanese leaders, mostly graduates of prestigious schools, get a failing grade in political science.

Intellectually, the history deniers contradict themselves. Tokyo argued that it does not have to apologize fully to Jiang because the Emperor did so when he visited China in 1992. But didn't Tokyo argue then that Akihito could not apologize because he is above politics? Additionally, Japanese spokesmen said during the summit that Japan showed greater contrition to Korea because it was colonized, whereas China was not. But didn't the militarists use their samurai swords to carve the puppet state of Manchukuo out of the wood of China? It appears that Japan hopes that soft loans can replace logic and facts in its China policy. Turning to psychology, Japanese policy makers do not realize that one reason China is so assertive on the apology is because the Chinese find themselves economically and militarily stronger. How ironic. In the 1980's and 1990's, the Japanese establishment was willing to rebuff the US's trade demands, and attack America's social failings, because the Japanese felt richer and stronger. It appears that Tokyo not only forgets the Chinese experience, even more strangely, it even forgets its own experience.

Finally, the Japanese public fails itself socially. Most of the public either cannot see, or refuses to act upon, the possibility that when Japanese tourists, students and businessmen -- some of them progressive and decent people one on one -- visit China, they will meet the very Chinese cited in the poll above. It appears that a people expert at reaping harmony at home are intent on sowing discord abroad. What can be said more narrowly about Jiang and the Chinese? To start, Jiang's stature in China will surely grow. Hardliners in the military and party will give him the praise that patriots ladle upon the stymied redeemer of national dignity. The public might be divided on regional, clan, generational, economic, linguistic and ideological grounds, but their resentment at Japan binds them closely. Also, the Chinese president will win support among Chinese people broadly speaking, meaning the millions of han ren who live outside China. Surely, Taiwanese, Singaporeans, Hong Kongers and Chinese-Americans will hail Jiang's stand on a moral issue that causes over a billion Chinese hearts, otherwise eurhythmic, to beat as one. Looking to the future, Japan would be foolish to expect that China will soon settle for a diluted apology. By so publicly and consistently rejecting casual words in favor of concrete terms on paper, the Chinese leader has established a Jiang Zemin line. Any Chinese statesman who backs away from that line will be charged with appeasement. In addition, Jiang himself cannot easily compromise with Tokyo in the future in the way that, say, former red-baiter Nixon could make peace with China. After all, Jiang said that he learned firsthand what Japan did to China, and this is one reason he was adamant in Tokyo. The boy-witness must remain the man-zealot -- or risk looking like a weakling who abandoned his own crusade.

Sino-Japanese relations will remain unsteady for the foreseeable future as the summit, which was supposed to produce a major new accommodation, instead failed. One wonders if the penalty of defiant pride that Jiang slapped upon arrogant Japanese hard liners will moderate or radicalize Japanese elite and mass opinion.

The blame for this imbroglio lies mainly with Japan. It promised that the summit would be a grand opera; instead, it provided old karaoke, sung off key.