China hand Ross Terrill sounds off on Japan

Ross Terrill is seen as a formidable authority on China. The author of the recently acclaimed “The New Chinese Empire” and a China scholar at Harvard, Terrill has as much insight into China, its government and its people as anyone could. He looks at the recent situation with Japan, and concludes the Chinese don’t have a solid leg to stand on.

China’s diplomatic awkwardness in the world is inseparable from its tight political control at home. Apologies, textbooks, uninhabited islands, war memories — all become painted faces and props in the Beijing opera of the paternalistic Chinese state’s cultural and foreign policies. Marxism has mostly lost its hold over Chinese minds. But truth and power emanate from one fount: historically the emperor’s court, today the Communist Party. The hold of the Chinese Communist regime over its people depends on belief in the cries and groans of the Beijing opera.

One opera act can give way to a surprising sequel. Folk in the People’s Republic were taught to love the Soviet Union and then to hate it. India was esteemed in the 1950s and vilified in the ’60s. Vietnam was “as close as lips and teeth” in the ’60s yet invaded by Chinese armies in 1979. When Japanese prime minister Kakuei Tanaka tried to apologise directly to Mao for World War II in 1972, Mao brushed him off, saying the “help” provided by Japan’s invasion of China made possible the Communist victory in 1949.

The moment’s raison d’etat is supreme. Turning on rhetoric, emotion, and government-sanctioned demonstrations is an easy trick.

It’s a fascinating thing, how uniform most Western accounts have been on this subject, as have the accounts of most Mainlanders. But those two accounts are total opposites: many Chinese honestly believe they were showing the world their maturity, conviction, knowledge of world events and history. They also saw it as proof of their new freedoms, while most in the West, like Terrill, saw it as at least partially (if not largely) a manipulation of the masses by the CCP. I’m not trying to say which is right or wrong, just that this dichotomy is spectacular.

Terrill also blasts a big hole in China’s obsession with the textbooks:

On textbooks, a projection identification occurs. Dynastic regimes in East Asia all viewed history as the province of state orthodoxy. China and Vietnam, putting Leninist dress on the skeleton of traditional autocracy, still do. Japan and Taiwan, as democracies, do not.

No book of any kind attacking the Communist Party’s monopoly of power in China has been published in China in the 56 years of the PRC. Some of the most trenchant books anywhere in the world on Japanese war atrocities have been written, published, and widely read in Japan. Beijing seems to think that because its textbooks jump to government policy, Japan’s do too. But they do not. In Japan, unlike in China, there are government-sponsored textbooks as well as independent ones.

The blunt truth is that reasonable Chinese, Japanese, and other scholarly estimates vary widely for Chinese killed by Japan in the Nanjing Massacre of 1937 and in World War II. They also do for Chinese killed by their own Communist government in the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution (no apologies, yet, for these mishaps; what’s a million here, 10million there, among comrades?). No one textbook can embody final truth.

You have to read the whole thing. This is not a reckless China-hater parroting the conservative Western line.

The Discussion: 15 Comments

old leftie,mao-admirer-turned-china-basher. Interesting.

April 21, 2005 @ 1:17 pm | Comment

many Chinese honestly believe they were showing the world their maturity, conviction, knowledge of world events and history

How much of this flows from the fact that most Chinese are unaware of the property damage and threats of violence done by the protestors in Beijing and Shanghai?

The news here reports that people protested peacefully: there’s no scenes of Chinese women getting smacked around for driving a Japanese car; no scenes of the embassy and consulates being attacked; no pictures of smashed windows at restaurants which dared to have Japanese lettering on their signs.

The Chinese I’ve talked to about the protests think they’re a good thing, and when I say that the protests make China look bad, they don’t understand. When I tell them what their news isn’t showing them, they get really upset, even ashamed of what some people did.

April 21, 2005 @ 1:22 pm | Comment


I thought there weren’t any news coverage of the protests in China. At least that’s what a lot of the western media has been saying.

April 21, 2005 @ 1:30 pm | Comment

Cloud, perfectly stated.

Hui Mao, it’s called growing up. I did it myself, in a similar progression to the one you described, as did Jan Wong and many other China watchers. I wouldn’t say “China bashers” — that’s patently untrue. “Critics” might be more fair.

April 21, 2005 @ 1:32 pm | Comment

Oh, and please read this excellent post to see how the Chinese media are stirring up the shit. As Terrill says, ramping up people’s emotions is an easy trick over there.

April 21, 2005 @ 1:38 pm | Comment


That’s a strange reply to my comment. Were you talking about something else? A lot of the reports I read in the western media mentioned the censoring of the news of the protests in Chinese media and I was wondering if it was true or not since Cloud seems to be saying there were coverage of the protests in the Chinese media.

April 21, 2005 @ 2:05 pm | Comment

Sorry, Hui Mao — I wrote your name and meant to write “ohmy” who wrote “old leftie,mao-admirer-turned-china-basher.” Sorry again, my mistake.

I wasn’t challenging you on your statement about the CHinese media. I honestly don’t know. From what I heard, I thought it was getting limited coverage, while the Huankantou riots were being totally blacked out.

April 21, 2005 @ 2:23 pm | Comment

Daily linklets 22nd April

The links between China’s internet firewall, English language teaching and debate. An interesting post saying China’s encouragement of English could undermine its firewall. French cooking: see fire, add fuel. It is a move to shore up France’s geopolit…

April 21, 2005 @ 8:19 pm | Comment

huankantou could not have been totally blacked out, since tens of thousands of people from around the area were heading there to sightsee and it was more than word of mouth. and the residents are bitter about what the television station had to say about them. and so on.

April 21, 2005 @ 8:21 pm | Comment

Hui Mao, I count China Daily and Xinhua as news sources and they’ve talked about the protests — and repeated government warnings against unauthorized marches — but not let on about any of the violence. Also, through word of mouth people have learned of the marches, but again there’s no mention of the violence. I would be remiss if I didn’t note that some Chinese do know about the bigger story because they peruse international English language news sites like CNN’s.

April 21, 2005 @ 8:29 pm | Comment

Thanks eswn, I forgot about the people taking outings there…. Any idea how it was represented in the Chinese media?

April 21, 2005 @ 8:40 pm | Comment

Counting China Daily and Xinhua as news sources for ordinary Chinese is incorrect. They are published in English not Chinese and are intended for a foreign audience. Xinhua Domestic Service has not covered either set of protests, nor has any other national Chinese language source.

April 21, 2005 @ 9:28 pm | Comment

China Daily is regular reading for every Chinese student who is studying English in university. And considering that all students must study English that’s a pretty significant segment of the urban population. The news also made it into Chinese-language papers in Beijing last weekend. So it DID make it into Chinese media, but most of the reporting is editorializing to the effect of, “Japan should pay attention to our anti-Japanese marches.” And none of the media reports on the damage.

However, word of mouth, whether spread the old-fashioned way or through SMS messages or BBS posts, is the main way in which news of the protests has spread here.

April 21, 2005 @ 11:37 pm | Comment

what was the media coverage of huankantou?

there is a more general situation here.

generally, some keywords are banned a priori. therefore, nothing will be allowed in mainstream media or forums about FLG, Wang D*a*n, etc. forget it.

what about huankantou?

before the riot at huankantou, there were news reports on the pollution situation. this is permissible material to report, as long as the blame is not directed at the governemnt. it is okay to say that a few corporate polluters are hurting people and wrecking the ecology.

once the riot broke out, there is a window of several days when the story is carried on television, in newspapers as well as internet forums. then the central propaganda bureau catches wind and orders all reports to be retroactively deteted (too late for tv broadcasts, but newspapers articles and forum posts are removed) and all future coverage to be banned.

so today, there are two major ways to reconstruct the story. one is through the google cache which dwindles over time. the other is through overseas chinese websites (which require special access methods from inside china). the latter is fraught with difficulty, since the websites usually carry a mix of authentic re-posts from inside China and obscene lies about china.

that is my short summary of the general landscape.

for huankantou, i was able to find the detailed pollution history of through the caches. the so-called eyewitness accounts of the riot itself is quite confusing (as in, it is uncertain if any civilians died).

April 21, 2005 @ 11:57 pm | Comment

eswn, you never cease to amaze me, even if ourpolitical outlook may differ at times. Thanks for the great insights and analysis.

April 22, 2005 @ 7:49 am | Comment

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.