Abe’s shrine visit calls for wider reflection

Por • 6 ene, 2014 • Sección: Internacionales

Francesco Sisci

BEIJING – In one of his last acts of 2013, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in late December visited the controversial Yasakuni shrine, where among the souls of war heroes, 28 war criminals are also celebrated. The visit put a new spin to heightening tensions in East Asia, which had been rising after China declared a new air defense identification zone over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, disputed with Japan. China’s ADIZ isolated China when Japan was in retreat; Abe’s Yasukuni visit reverted the process and isolated Japan, proving to many countries, already suspicious of Japan, that Abe was the guilty party in this contest, and put the United States in difficulty as part-victim of the 28 criminals Abe went to pray for.

It was a major victory for Beijing and a major international defeat for Japan. Yet it is not just international tit-tat. There is possibly deeper working here. For this we have to take a small detour.

Of legacies and geography

In the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong is the father of the country, as George Washington is for the United States. He’s also the banner-carrier for the revolution and that banner cannot be given to others eager to start a new communist revolution against the present order. For this reason, the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) has been reluctant to let go of his myth and leave it to others to pick up.

However, one central element of Mao’s legacy has to be reconsidered. Is it his legacy that legitimizes the continuity in power of the CPC? Maybe not. This history begins in a few dramatic years in the late 1970s, after the Cultural Revolution. Then the economy was on the brink of collapse, not much different from what happened a decade later in the Soviet Union.

Deng Xiaoping took power in 1978, two years after the arrest of the notorious Gang of Four, and introduced the policy of reform and opening up, which launched China into the future. However, this policy was not enough. China at the moment had what the Soviet Union lacked a decade later: president Mikhail Gorbachev initiated reforms but didn’t have the American support that was granted to Deng. In the late 1970s America normalized ties with China and supported China’s intervention in a war against Vietnam, which was then occupying Cambodia.

In return for those ties and that war, the US gave its blessing to a flow of investment and technological transfer to China, which moved the country out of the Cultural Revolution. Moreover, Washington accepted China in a world of international trade that hugely benefited China. The Soviet Union was carefully shunned for that international trade. This transfer of technology, goodwill, and opening of trade was missing in the USSR in the late ’80s when, as the party secretary, Gorbachev started a similar process of reform, which should have helped Russia out of its morass.

Reform plus American support launched China’s development, but most important, also kept the ruling Communist Party in power. This means that despite keeping the same name and the same paraphernalia, present China is radically different from China at the time of Mao’s death. In fact, a China was born again in 1978-1979, when Deng Xiaoping took power and the Carter administration normalized relations with Beijing. This also means that Mao’s legacy is not fundamental to China’s present situation; in fact, Mao’s legacy may well be counterproductive.

The present party rule has been challenged three times in the past three decades: in 1989, with the Tiananmen movement, in 1999, with the Falun Gong, and in 2011-2012 with Bo Xilai, the now-jailed Chongjing part secretary. In all these instances, there was an overt or covert appeal to Mao’s legacy.

In Tiananmen, the students behaved like the young revolutionaries of Mao’s time, television stations supported the movement by showing a TV drama portraying young Mao heading student movements, and common people even waved Mao’s portrait; in 1999, many elderly Falun Gong practitioners were Mao-nostalgic, xenophobic, and against modern ties and reforms; Bo Xilai openly appealed to memories of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Then these events prove that Mao’s memory can be dangerous and should be carefully held under control.

Yet Mao’s theories and thinking are interesting and have been a powerful contribution to the Chinese way of thinking about politics and strategy, and as institutions they can be modified but not easily replaced. This is actually the conundrum of modern China, which was born out of Mao’s ashes some thirty years ago, but cannot sweep away those ashes. To completely sweep away those ashes could be dangerous, as was trying to do without the Confucian legacy during Mao’s times.

To move into the future, China then needs to frame Mao’s legacy in a proper way, recognizing its value and its huge demerits, as it is trying to do with the Confucian values. This is necessary to project China into a future very different from what Mao’s theories may predict. Part of this projection then is also a full-fledged recognition of Deng Xiaoping’s dramatic break with Mao’s legacy and the massive American contribution to China’s success.

Without that US contribution, Communist China may have well died just like the Soviet Union. Then if China has to project its own future out to the world, it has to start by recognizing that it all started after Deng and America’s contribution, which destroyed Mao’s legacy. Therefore, the future can be made of these two elements and without Mao’s legacy, which would only make Chinese development impossible in the future.

Since psychology tells us that memories have to be reformed and fully digested, but trying to block them or ignore them just makes them stronger, there are also other memories to be considered in the region.

Memories across the Yellow Sea

An issue of memories and of the future influences Japan and in perspective China in the latest development concerning the visit of Prime Minister Abe to the Yasukuni Shrine. The visit was meant to be a signal to Japanese right wing, but China and South Korea considered it an insult because it reminded Japan and its neighbors about the unforgotten imperialistic war of invasion in the 1930s and 1940s.

However, the issue of Abe, the Yasukuni Shrine, and perhaps of the contested Senkaku islands is also one of memories and the future. Japan has been facing a massive challenge for a few years. For over 100 years, Japan was the main power in Asia, first by beating China in the late 1880s, and then by acting as the main ally of United States after World War II. In all this time, nobody challenged Tokyo in this area, and this gave Japan a sense of purpose and a specific role in the region and the world.

In the past five years, China managed to overtake Japan’s GDP and become twice as big an economy as Japan. Moreover, it became an even larger political entity – thus largely obscuring Japan’s role in Asia and the world. What can the role of Japan be in a region and in a world where China is emerging so strongly?

This is the question Abe is really trying to answer. His response could have involved looking into the future and trying to find completely new answers, but finding these new answers is extremely difficult because they are unprecedented. Much easier would have been, as it has been, to go back to the past and find elements that could give Japan a new role rooted in the past century of history.

Abe’s answer was to confront China, just as his ancestors did in the late 1880s. Then China was still economically, politically, and militarily stronger than Japan; yet Japan was more efficient and managed quite easily to beat China and take control of Korea and Taiwan. Now Japan cannot of course try to repeat the effort of over a hundred years ago, and yet by taking a stand against China, it now can gain a position of prominence in the world, at a time when many are scared and insecure about the future political and economic directions taken by Beijing.

This position may be paying off for Abe’s government in the short term, but it is not a sound long-term strategy because it’s hard to believe that China’s growth and development can be actually contained and Beijing can be brought to a standstill without breaking up the country, something that might be even more dangerous for global stability and welfare than China’s continued development.

Then, like China with Mao’s legacy, Japan perhaps should go back and find inspiration in its own past. Japan was born again after the American occupation in the 1950s. This occupation, although it retained some of its old imperial gear, broke dramatically with the Japanese past, as it imposed foreign rule on a strongly independent land.

That period glossed over what was very strongly felt in Germany: that Word War II was not simply a strategic mistake, but it was a crime against the rest of the world and against Japan. Germany openly considers World War II in these terms – a crime against German people and against the rest of the world – and is still feared, although not openly, by the rest of Europe and by itself.

Now we are at a moment in history when Berlin should take the lead and guide the political unification of Europe and does not do it because Germans fear their past and so does the rest of Europe.

Conversely, Japan doesn’t seem to be afraid of itself and ignores the fear it spawns in the rest of Asia. So we have two fears confronting each other: in Japan there is the imperial past, and in China there is Mao’s past, with its legacy of famines and bloody mass revolutions. These two memories stand in the way of a more peaceful balance of power in Asia.

Both countries need imagination and fantasy to conceive a future that starts off the old roots but is also different and doesn’t repeat the old mistakes. Bo Xilai’s attempt to revert to old Maoist habits was badly defeated, and now president Xi Jinping is trying to figure out a way out of Mao’s shadows. Can Japan do something along these lines, casting aside imperial memories?

Francesco Sisci is a columnist for the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore. His e-mail is fsisci@gmail.com


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