The temperature is rising in Asia these days, and it has a lot to do with two countries that are very closely related but that pretend not to be – China and Vietnam.
The news is filled these days with reports of anti-Japanese protests in China. And in the summer we had reports of anti-China protests in Vietnam. Everyone’s angry about islands (“rocks in the sea” as I prefer to call them), and they are all using the same discourse to talk about them – an anti-foreign discourse.
The anti-Japan discourse is one that the PRC government has used over and over to win the support of its people. Whenever things are bad, just point to Japan. Everything is always Japan’s fault.
Whenever I hear about protests like the ones currently taking place in China, I always have a burning desire to go visit the Great Leap Forward Memorial, you know, the site which honors the millions of innocent Chinese who starved to death because of the policies of the PRC government in the late-1950s and early-1960s.
Or if I can’t make it to that memorial, I at least want to go visit the famous Cultural Revolution Memorial that honors all of the innocent Chinese who were senselessly killed or had their lives destroyed by the policies of the PRC government in the decade from 1966-1976.
What? There is no Great Leap Forward Memorial? You mean millions of innocent Chinese starved to death for nothing?
And what? There is no Cultural Revolution Memorial?? You mean one quarter of the earth’s population was tormented by their government for a decade and there is no public recognition of this???
Oh, that’s right! It’s because it’s all Japan’s fault!! Everything in China is Japan’s fault. . .
In the nineteenth century it was Japan’s fault that it was one of the only lands in Asia that responded to the threat of the West by modernizing and competing with the West. (and of course the West has never had to apologize for conquering and colonizing much of the globe. . .)
And yes, it is Japan’s fault that the Chinese were too incompetent at the time to do the same.
Ok, sure, we can blame Japan for expanding and colonizing Korea and Taiwan, and we can blame Japan for attacking China (something the world has demanded that Japan apologize for, whereas Western colonization. . . no need to apologize for that.). Perhaps it could have modernized without expanding.
Although perhaps it couldn’t have. Are there any Western nations at the time that modernized without colonies? Of course, it’s Japan’s fault for trying to do what the “big boys” were doing at the time. . .
But why couldn’t China resist this? China, the great civilization that has existed for thousands of years. . . why was it unable to resist the Japanese, a people from a small country on some islands out in the sea??
Not only could the Chinese not resist, but they committed acts of incredible inhumanity. In 1938, for instance, Chiang Kai-shek ordered that the dikes in the Yellow River be opened in order to flood northern China to stop the Japanese advance.
The common Chinese citizens who lived in the area were not informed, and conservative estimates are that 800,000 Chinese drowned to death.
Chiang Kai-shek killed 800,000 of his own people. . . but it’s the Japanese who are bad. . . How many rulers in this world have killed 800,000 of their own people? (ok, Mao Zedong killed millions. . . but 800,000 is still impressive.)
Vietnam is little better. In the 1950s, North Vietnam and the PRC were the best of friends. But starting in the mid 1960s with the Cultural Revolution, and then in 1972 with Mao’s détente with Nixon, and finally in 1979 with the war with the PRC, relations deteriorated.
As they did so, the discourse of “resistance to Chinese aggression” became ever more strident.
So what is it that unites China and Vietnam? It is that they both promote anti-foreign discourses.
So this is my question: In our current global age when every country on the planet is intimately linked with every other country, what positive role do these anti-foreign discourses play?
The only “positive” role that I can see, is that they give legitimacy to current governments and they make the citizens in these countries feel good as they can blame someone else for their problems.
The real problem however is that these discourses actually limit the ability of governments to function effectively in the world in which they exist.
When Chinese citizens get angry at Japan, that might bolster the legitimacy of the PRC government and make people in China feel good, but the PRC government desperately needs the investments of Japanese businesses to keep the economy of China prospering, which is also essential for the government’s legitimacy, and the common Chinese who work for Japanese companies need those jobs.
In the end, I can’t help but conclude that these anti-foreign discourses have no productive role in the present. The anti-Japan discourse was important during WW II in China, and the “resistance to foreign aggression” discourse was important in Vietnam during the American war, but those discourses do not fit our contemporary world.
Of course China should not be allowed to bully others into letting it control all of those islands in the seas. But I can’t see how these anti-foreign discourses are helping bring about that result.
A new discourse needs to be created. China, Japan, Vietnam and Korea all need to create a new model for talking to and about each other. The past is the past. We’re living in the present.
If we really examine the past, then we can easily find a mountain of evidence that counters what people are saying in the present. So people should stop speaking lies and half-truths about the past, and focus on what we face today.