The Economist, Print edition (August 15)- IN EARLY September President Xi Jinping will take the salute at a huge military parade in Beijing. It will be his most visible assertion of authority since he came to power in 2012: his first public appearance at such a display of missiles, tanks and goose-stepping troops. Officially the event will be all about the past, commemorating the end of the second world war in 1945 and remembering the 15m Chinese people who died in one of its bloodiest chapters: the Japanese invasion and occupation of China of 1937-45.
It will be a reminder of the bravery of China’s soldiers and their crucial role in confronting Asia’s monstrously aggressive imperial power. And rightly so: Chinese sacrifices during that hellish period deserve much wider recognition. Between 1937, when total war erupted in China, and late 1941, when the attack on Pearl Harbor brought America into the fray, China fought the Japanese alone. By the end of the war it had lost more people—soldiers and civilians—than any other country bar the Soviet Union.
Yet next month’s parade is not just about remembrance; it is about the future, too. This is the first time that China is commemorating the war with a military show, rather than with solemn ceremony. The symbolism will not be lost on its neighbours. And it will unsettle them, for in East Asia today the rising, disruptive, undemocratic power is no longer a string of islands presided over by a god-emperor. It is the world’s most populous nation, led by a man whose vision for the future (a richer country with a stronger military arm) sounds a bit like one of Japan’s early imperial slogans. It would be wrong to press the parallel too far: China is not about to invade its neighbours. But there are reasons to worry about the way the Chinese Communist Party sees history—and massages it to justify its current ambitions.
History with Chinese characteristics
Under Mr Xi, the logic of history goes something like this. China played such an important role in vanquishing Japanese imperialism that not only does it deserve belated recognition for past valour and suffering, but also a greater say in how Asia is run today. Also, Japan is still dangerous. Chinese schools, museums and TV programmes constantly warn that the spirit of aggression still lurks across the water. A Chinese diplomat has implied that Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is a new Voldemort, the epitome of evil in the “Harry Potter” series. At any moment Japan could menace Asia once more, party newspapers intone. China, again, is standing up to the threat.
As our essay on the ghosts of the war that ended 70 years ago this week explains, this narrative requires exquisite contortions. For one thing, it was not the Chinese communists who bore the brunt of the fighting against Japan, but their sworn enemies, the nationalists (or Kuomintang) under Chiang Kai-shek. For another, today’s Japan is nothing like the country that slaughtered the inhabitants of Nanjing, forced Korean and Chinese women into military brothels or tested biological weapons on civilians.
Granted, Japan never repented of its war record as full-throatedly as Germany did. Even today a small but vocal group of Japanese ultra-nationalists deny their country’s war crimes, and Mr Abe, shamefully, sometimes panders to them. Yet the idea that Japan remains an aggressive power is absurd. Its soldiers have not fired a shot in anger since 1945. Its democracy is deeply entrenched; its respect for human rights profound. Most Japanese acknowledge their country’s war guilt. Successive governments have apologised, and Mr Abe is expected to do the same (see article). Today Japan is ageing, shrinking, largely pacifist and, because of the trauma of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, unlikely ever to possess nuclear weapons. Some threat.
The dangers of demonisation
China’s demonisation of Japan is not only unfair; it is also risky. Governments that stoke up nationalist animosity cannot always control it. So far, China’s big show of challenging Japan’s control of the Senkaku (or Diaoyu) islands has involved only sabre-rattling, not bloodshed. But there is always a danger that a miscalculation could lead to something worse.
East Asia’s old war wounds have not yet healed. The Korean peninsula remains sundered, China and Taiwan are separate, and even Japan can be said to be split, for since 1945 America has used the southern island of Okinawa as its main military stronghold in the western Pacific. The Taiwan Strait and the border between North and South Korea continue to be potential flashpoints; whether they one day turn violent depends largely on China’s behaviour, for better or worse. It is naive to assume America will always be able to keep a lid on things.
On the contrary, many Asians worry that China’s ambitions set it on a collision course with the superpower and the smaller nations that shelter under its security umbrella. When China picks fights with Japan in the East China Sea, or builds airstrips on historically disputed reefs in the South China Sea, it feeds those fears. It also risks sucking America into its territorial disputes, and raises the chances of eventual conflict.
Post-war East Asia is not like western Europe. No NATO or European Union binds former foes together. France’s determination to promote lasting peace by uniting under a common set of rules with Germany, its old invader, has no Asian equivalent. East Asia is therefore less stable than western Europe: a fissile mix of countries both rich and poor, democratic and authoritarian, with far less agreement on common values or even where their borders lie. Small wonder Asians are skittish when the regional giant, ruled by a single party that draws little distinction between itself and the Chinese nation, plays up themes of historical victimhood and the need to correct for it.
How much better it would be if China sought regional leadership not on the basis of the past, but on how constructive its behaviour is today. If Mr Xi were to commit China to multilateral efforts to foster regional stability, he would show that he has truly learned the lessons of history. That would be far, far better than repeating it.
This article has been originally published in The Economist.