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I am really happy to have as part of the very occasional Sinocism book series an exclusive adaptation from Richard McGregor’s new book Asia’s Reckoning: China, Japan, and the Fate of U.S. Power in the Pacific Century.
Richard, a friend, is the former Financial Times Bureau Chief in Beijing and Washington DC. He is also the author of The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers, a must-read book on the Chinese Communist Party.
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On to the adaptation from Asia’s Reckoning: China, Japan, and the Fate of U.S. Power in the Pacific Century:
China’s Political Third Rail: Japan
In trying to understand why China and Japan, Asia’s two great powers, can’t get on, and indeed, through the centuries, rarely have, there is a long list of problems that are usually trotted out. Most accounts of Sino-Japanese relations paint the two countries’ differences in primordial terms, the inevitable, inexorable product of Japan’s invasion and occupation of China in the thirties and through World War II until Tokyo’s surrender in August, 1945, followed by an extended squabble over responsibility for the conflict. Alternatively, the conflict is depicted as a traditional great power contest, with an ascending superpower, China, running up against a now weaker rival competing to dominate the Asia-Pacific. A third template takes a longer view, of a China bent on re-building the ascendency the celestial kingdom enjoyed in Asia in imperial times.
None of these templates alone, however, capture the tangled emotions and complex psychology of Sino-Japanese relations, nor their enmity. And none capture how all of these issues play out in the domestic politics of both countries. The deep roots of the distrust, in other words, are at home – in the way that Japan is weaponized inside Chinese domestic politics, and equally, how sensitive China is in Japanese internal debates.
To understand this from the Chinese side, a good place to start is with Tong Zeng. In the summer of 2016, I made an appointment to see Tong, who is a longtime anti-Japan activist, in his office in west Beijing. It wasn’t the best of times to be discussing sensitive political topics in China. On coming to power four years earlier, Xi Jinping had inherited a tightly held, opaque political system. During his first term he achieved a rare double—he made the system even less transparent and more intimidating. The Party marginalized and investigated political enemies, jailed activist lawyers, and instructed academics, scholars, and the media in no uncertain terms to toe the line. A number of foreigners working in overseas-funded civil society groups were detained and forced to film Maoist-style confessions for the evening news before being deported. Anyone with a finger to the political winds in China was not lining up to talk to the Western press.
Tong had proved to be a canny operator since emerging in the early 1990s, agitating to change China’s longstanding policy forgoing war reparations from Japan. A young masters graduate from Peking University, Tong had been at a loose end after being admonished for his role in the 1989 protests when he came across a story in the People’s Daily. The small item, tucked away on the inside pages of the CCP organ, recounted how Poland had decided to seek war reparations from West Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall. (Communist Poland had already received some money from the former East Germany.) In an essay written in 1991 titled “lifting the spirits of the Chinese”, Tong advocated China doing the same with Japan. When no newspaper would publish it, he took his views to delegates at annual meeting of the National People’s Congress, China’s pseudo-parliament, in Beijing. Even in the fetid post-1989 environment, when any extra-curricular political activities carried grave risks, dozens of delegates he managed to pull aside supported him.
Soon after circulating his petition, Tong was visited by the Beijing police. In Tong’s telling of the story, they satisfied themselves he didn’t have a broader anti-party agenda and confided that they supported his mission. “My grandfather was killed by the Japanese,” one policeman told him. Still, the authorities kept a close eye on him. Most years, during the NPC sessions, or at other sensitive moments, Tong says the authorities would “invite him to travel”, giving him a free trip out of town so he could not cause any trouble. During the Emperor’s visit to Beijing in 1992, he was sent to Chongqing. Classed as an intellectual, Tong was picked up at airports by high-level officials and put up at good hotels. He would go sightseeing by day, and do karaoke at night. “After I left to go back to Beijing, the local officials would thank me for behaving, as they would get a bonus if there were no incidents,” he said.
Over the years, Tong adapted to these constraints, and gradually built a space in which he could operate. Crafty and sinuous, with a finely tuned sense of when to press ahead and when to pull back, and, above all, keeping his focus on Japan’s ill deeds rather than the Party’s shortcomings, Tong built a career out of campaigning for reparations that would endure for the next 25 years. Along the way he managed to make a reasonable living through a consulting business, using his stature as a patriotic warrior to open doors for companies that wanted to list on the stock exchange. As for welcoming foreign journalists to his office, that was no problem, despite the icy political winds blowing through the capital in 2016. Now is actually a good time for me to give interviews,” he said.
With his focus on Japan, Tong was living in an alternate political universe from the rest of the country. Although he was campaigning against long-settled government policy on reparations, the police didn’t come to his house to issue him warnings, or drag him away in the early morning to detention. The local media, when they did discuss him, referred to him as tiaopi, meaning naughty or mischievous. The authorities tolerated Tong’s work, which for him, amounted to a green light. “The government is not against us,” he said. “And in China, if the government is not against you, they support you.”
Over the previous quarter century, Tong and like-minded activists had helped organize numerous stunts, mostly by sending flotillas of fishing boats to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands at different times. He continued to petition the National People’s Congress, and talk to the local media. Other like-minded activist groups, scattered over different parts of the country, but mainly in Beijing, and around the coastal areas near the islands, endured nasty internal splits over money and the timing of campaigns, but their movement never disintegrated.
When I visited him, Tong said the campaign to extract money from Japan had reached a complicated “third stage.” Initially the activists had tracked down victims they could use to front claims for monetary damages. With the assistance of lawyers and civil society groups in Japan, they filed numerous cases in Tokyo, for everything from back pay for forced laborers during the occupation to damages for the seizure of assets. The cases were largely unsuccessful. Then, as relations with Tokyo deteriorated, the activists eyed opportunities closer to home by working through the Chinese legal system.
In 2014, after refusing such cases for decades, a Chinese court finally agreed to hear a claim against one of Japan’s giant global trading house, Mitsui. A Chinese family was demanding compensation for the loss of two coal carriers leased by Mitsui and then commandeered by the Imperial Navy during the late 1930s. One boat was sunk by a torpedo and the other lost at sea during a storm. After one of Mitsui’s ships was impounded in China in April 2014 on court orders, the Japanese company quickly agreed to pay $29m to settle the case.
The Chinese government called the Mitsui affair a simple business dispute that had a been handled according to the law, unrelated to political battles over reparations and the like. In truth, the case was a milestone. It set a legal precedent, but more importantly, given that the law is subservient to politics in China, a political one. Beijing had given the activists a tactical victory on their own doorstep, a decision that kept pressure on Japan and left the door ajar for further such cases to be brought in the future.
In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the Kremlin decided that if they couldn’t control nationalist and patriotic groups, then they would make sure they were leading them. Beijing’s approach was subtly different. The Chinese authorities led the anti-Japan movements from behind, camouflaging their support for the activists with bland statements about the law and past diplomatic practice. At the same time, the authorities kept the activists on a tight leash through the Party’s control of the courts and the press, to ensure that they could be yanked back into line at any time. The Chinese state does not need to display its sinews to remind people of its might. Most are all too aware of the Party’s power, and have learnt to keep their heads down, or devise ways around it.
Tong and his staff at his small office in Beijing had long internalized the parameters of what was permissible, even as they tried to expand the boundaries within which they could work. Tong headquartered his consulting business in the Chinese capital. His group that lobbied for reparations, the China Association for Claiming Compensation from Japan, however, had been discreetly registered in Hong Kong, at arm’s length from the authorities in Beijing. His office always ran any statements about his work past the Propaganda Department and the Foreign Ministry before making them public. Did they follow whatever instructions they were given? I asked. “Of course we do,” his assistant assured me.
But endemic tensions remained between the government and activists nonetheless. The same week that I chatted with Tong, I met in Beijing a retired senior Foreign Ministry official. Xu Dunxin was a former vice-minister who served as Ambassador to Japan for five years from 1993, a period when relations started their downward trend. Dapper and relaxed, Xu spoke with the confidence of someone who has held high office, but, in his case, without the edge that often appears when Chinese hold forth on Japan. Born in 1934 in Yangzhou, near Nanjing, where he went to the same middle school as Jiang Zemin, he harbored a young boy’s memories of the war and its hardships. “When I was young, aged four, I wore my shoes to bed, because I thought I might have to flee,” he recalled. “That memory cannot be removed easily.”
Throughout his career Xu had a frontline view of the bitter rifts over China policy within Japan: between the right wing and left wing, within the right, and within the bureaucracy, academia, and think tanks. “They were not minor; they were huge,” he observed. “There were forces in Japan who supported friendship; there were forces who opposed friendship.” In China, by contrast, he maintained that officials, scholars, and citizens were unified on the most sensitive issues in the bilateral relationship—history, Taiwan, and the disputed islands. “We speak with one voice,” he said, “while on the future of the relationship and on the issue of Japanese militarism, there are differences of opinion.”
Xu was correct in describing what outsiders can see of the debate within China on Japan. The “one voice” to which he referred was drummed into schoolchildren from a young age and enforced politically throughout the system. Any official, scholar, or newspaper editor who persistently spoke out of turn would have had a very short career. The “new thinking on Japan” movement that had emerged in the early years of the twenty-first century had all but been snuffed out. That meant that whatever internal schisms that did exist within China were inevitably on the other side of the ledger. The infighting that was visible from the outside was directed not at the government for being too tough on Japan. Rather, it was aimed at the government—or more precisely, the Foreign Ministry—for not being tough enough.
No visitor to Tong’s offices in Beijing could have departed with any doubt about his views. Although he was careful not to make direct criticisms of Chinese diplomats himself, he handed visitors a laudatory biography of him written by a friend, which contained evidence enough of his opinions. Tong Zeng: Messenger of Peace was filled with venomous and deeply personal attacks against the Foreign Ministry and its senior cadres for being soft on Japan. Numerous top officials, including three retired and serving foreign ministers, were identified by name and criticized for being “venal,” “corrupt,” “passive,” “foul-mouthed,” “weak,” “deficient,” “humiliating,” “servile” and “obsequious.”
Tong’s diaries, quoted in the book, include his disparaging assessment of Wang Yi, who, at the time Tong’s thoughts were recorded, had yet to become Foreign Minister. They were not the sorts of things Tong would dare express in public these days. “Once upon a time, a man called Wang Yi wants to become an official…To become a senior official, he simply needs to apply in the area of Sino-Japanese relations, provided he gives up his principles.” The diaries depict Wang as an ambitious climber, willing to give up the Diaoyu Islands and nearby oil fields in the East China Sea just to get on with Japan. Chinese diplomats, the book declares, “inevitably become the servant, losing pride in the values of their native Asia after being in contact with the culture and civilization of the West.”
The most scurrilous sections of Tong Zeng: Messenger of Peace targeted Tang Jiaxuan, the foreign minister and later state councilor under Hu Jintao in the first decade of the twenty-first century. They accuse Tang—and they are, effectively, accusations, whether they are true or not—of having relatives who collaborated with the Japanese puppet regime in the 1930s in Nanjing. Worse, the book claims that more recently, Tang and his family made money from business connections in Japan, facilitated by his “modest Japanese wife.” “Come and see what foreign minister there is here,” the author writes. “If he can represent the Chinese from the waist down, how can he speak on stage facing the world?”
When I asked a Chinese scholar whether Tang was in fact married to a Japanese woman, his reply was instructive. He didn’t say, “That’s wrong” but rather, “Impossible!” An official of Tang’s seniority , after all, is not permitted under the Party’s rules to be wed to a foreigner. Tang could never have been promoted within the Party if he had a Japanese wife, modest or otherwise. The fact that the claim in the biography was pure slander was typical of the nasty undercurrents of the debate in China and the dangers facing any official who dealt with closely with Japan.
Xu and other Foreign Ministry officials had long carried the burden within the system of dampening down the kind of anti-Japanese zealotry displayed in the Tong biography. Beginning in the 1980s, when students at Peking University protested against a visit by the then Japanese prime minister to Yasukuni Shrine, to the nationalization of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in 2012, the authorities’ playbook had been much the same: tighten control of the media; praise patriotism, while demanding that it be expressed rationally; send in the police in numbers, if the trouble spills into the streets; and dispatch the diplomats, if the problems occur in more elite forums, like campuses.
There were times when the authorities let the protesters have their heads, but they were eventually always pulled into line. “When this problem arises, I always go on the media and to universities to talk about what real patriotism is,” Xu explained. “I tell them what’s right and what’s wrong; and I tell them, you are not supporting China; you are smearing China.” Tong, at least when talking to me, maintained a similar position. “I am strongly against the nationalist campaigns against the Japanese as a whole,” he said. “But if there one country that the Chinese people are angry at, it is Japan.”
Tong, however, played both sides of the street. He claimed to dissent from the nationalists, while at the same time handing out books slandering Chinese diplomats for selling out their country to Japan. The biography attacking China’s Japan experts that he handed out to visitors was published in English, and in Hong Kong, rather than in Chinese, in China, to minimize any trouble it could cause him at home. Tong’s courage, like any survivor in the Chinese system, went only so far.
If you enjoyed this adaptation you should buy the whole book-Asia’s Reckoning: China, Japan, and the Fate of U.S. Power in the Pacific Century.
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