Did the recent anti-Japan riots mirror the manipulation of the Cultural Revolution?

NY Times correspondent William French offers a though-provoking article on the recent riots that seems to me to reek of common sense. (Emphasis added.)

The banners had been carefully printed, the slogans memorized. Then the students and young unleashed onto the streets of China’s largest, most sophisticated city, where they were to speak sacred truths and make the enemies of the people tremble.

Chinese today have little experience in mass organized protests, so when the government tolerated – some would say encouraged – a huge anti-Japanese demonstration here that flirted with turning into a riot over the weekend, for many it bore echoes of the mass manipulation of students of another era, the Cultural Revolution.

For hours on Saturday, thousands of Chinese, from teenagers to people in their 30s, lay siege to the Japanese Consulate in this city, smashing its windows and defacing its walls with a copious rain of rocks and bottles.

But for all the expressions of anger against Japan by people far too young to have memories of China’s brutal subjugation by its neighbor, at its most basic level this was a festival of runaway nationalism, of a government-nurtured Chinese-ness.

Declaring themselves to be all one people, the demonstrators proclaimed their love of the police who escorted them as they marched to the consulate, smashing Japanese shops along the way.

Banners extolled Chinese greatness, in contrast to little Japan, chanters called for their homeland to stand tall, and talk was dominated by Chinese “feelings,” a word repeated over and over, as if no other feelings counted.

Revealingly, people who had lived through the real Cultural Revolution, not the sanitized one taught in China’s history books, watched from the sidelines with looks of amazement and worry. They were old enough to remember just how badly things can go when intoxication is the order of the day, and laws are swept aside by feelings.

“I watched the police cars escorting the demonstrators and felt this all looked familiar, like an official event in the Cultural Revolution, but those drew bigger crowds and were more emotional,” said Zhu Xueqin, a historian at Shanghai University who emerged from a public library to watch the march go by. “I observed it as a bystander, and the people observing around me looked indifferent, seemingly full of reservations.”

I have to say that of all the articles I’ve seen to date, this one captures my own feelings: that this was another great leap backward and a cruel hoax on the Chinese people. They were only hurting themselves by reacting as they did, and they will pay the price economically and on the political playing field. Emotionalism feels so good at the time, and its results are always, always self-defeating.

The Maoist slogans of 40 years ago have been replaced by anti-Japanese watchwords, and then as now, few of those caught up in the excitement paused to examine the relationship of today’s slogans to the truth. Here were students mouthing such claims as “Japan has never apologized to China,” or “Japanese textbooks whitewash history.”

Many Japanese textbooks have recently de-emphasized atrocities committed in China, and some have been widely distributed. But in China, the most tendentious of them is the one cited as a representative sample, although it is used by less than 1 percent of Japanese schools.

Others said, trembling with conviction, that Japan wanted to keep China down, or even instigate the country’s breakup. Never mind that for more than two decades, Japan has been a leading source of development assistance for China – to the tune of $30 billion in low interest loans – helping build everything from Shanghai’s futuristic airport to water systems in the country’s vast, impoverished west.

Few in the Chinese crowds, including many educated in the country’s best schools, seemed aware of facts like those, or of any other side to the story, save what could be fit into the dichotomy of a China that is essentially good and a Japan that is predatory, evil, conniving or, in a word heard over and over, “disgusting.

Sorry for the long quotes, but I want you to read this. French says absolutely everything I’ve been trying to articulate here for two weeks, and it shows the author’s deep concern for China and its people.

I realize that may be a hard concept for some readers to grasp, but I can promise you it’s true.

UPDATE: You can read French’s web site here.

The Discussion: 21 Comments

Check out an article on today’s independent.


Howard’s article is so biased that publishing this article shows the level of journalism at IHT.

April 20, 2005 @ 8:51 pm | Comment

Steve, with respect, that article you linked to simply rehashes for the gazillionth time what we all know about the horrors of the Japanese occupation and Japan’s failure to live up to them. Acknowledged and condemned by all of us. But how does this detract from French’s points about the demonstrations echoing the Cultural Revolution?

April 20, 2005 @ 9:10 pm | Comment

It’s interesting that he compared the recent protests to the Cultural Revolution when the similarities are pretty far fetched while ignoring a much better comparison with the May 4th movement that can give much better insights to how and why certain things are happening and why the government is reacting in the manner that it is. Even the student protests in 1989 are a much better and meaningful comparison than the Cultural Revolution. I can only say that the comparison to the Cultural Revolution serves the author’s purpose of invoking the types of responses that he wants from his readers but doesn’t really do anything to inform his readers.

April 20, 2005 @ 9:32 pm | Comment

Well, I can see why he made the comparison. Both were instances where the government supported and abetted the demonstrations and even helped engineer them, putting a stop to them when their usefulness had expired. Looking at the photos, I immediately was reminded of CR photos I’d seen, with all the passion and eagerness as the students went after China’s “enemies.” Very striking similarities that I think most objective observers see as fairly obvious.

April 20, 2005 @ 9:48 pm | Comment

I think you are wrong on your comparison of the recent anti-Japanese protests to the Cultural Revolution upheaval. I think the Hui Mao is closer to a viable comparison than you.

April 20, 2005 @ 10:32 pm | Comment

The Cultural Revolution was a very complex political event that academics are still struggling to understand today. It is not something that can be characterized simply in a few paragraphs and there are few, if any, events that can be compared to it. If the sole basis for the comparison is government sponsorship (debatable for the current protests and much more complicated in the case of CR) and high emotions involved, then the link is pretty weak as many other events in the world can be compared in this way.

I’ve always disliked people invoking CR as part of an argument. It’s like how some people invoke the Holocaust and Nazi’s. Most of the times, the comparisons are far fetched and invalid and only serves to stir-up emotions without adding any meaningful content to the issues at hand.

April 20, 2005 @ 10:41 pm | Comment

Are you suggesting that nothing can be compared to the Cultural Revolution? That it really is so complicated and unique that it can’t be compared, in any respect to anything else? I think there are some aspects of the CR that are in fact relatively well understood, and that although there may be an emotional impact upon considering those aspects, doesn’t invalidate the comparisons.

This interesting point aside, it seems that there were a number of other issues raised by the author, and the use of the CR, however appropriate doesn’t invalidate (or validate) any of those (which noone here is commenting on).

April 20, 2005 @ 11:25 pm | Comment

Are you suggesting that nothing can be compared to the Cultural Revolution? That it really is so complicated and unique that it can’t be compared, in any respect to anything else?

Yeah, pretty much that’s what I’m saying. Something of CR’s scale, covering 1/4 of humanity during a very unique time in history is certainly unlikely to have anything that parallels it.

April 20, 2005 @ 11:43 pm | Comment

“The banners had been carefully printed, the slogans memorized.”

Yes we all know the protests were carefully staged and prepared by the CCP just like in the Cultural Revolution.

“people far too young to have memories”

I agree again, why should Chinese care about the Nanking Massacre, they were not there, French kisses the Japans Imperialists. XOXO

“Revealingly, people who had lived through the real Cultural Revolution, not the sanitized one taught in China’s history books, watched from the sidelines with looks of amazement and worry. They were old enough to remember just how badly things can go when intoxication is the order of the day, and laws are swept aside by feelings.”

Mr French must know how to mind-read all these Chinese bystanders who went thru the CR.

April 21, 2005 @ 12:17 am | Comment

Talk about bad journalism.
Look like my beloved NY Times is losing its credibility.

April 21, 2005 @ 12:20 am | Comment

Finally, NYT gave the last word on Chinese version of Crystal Night.

April 21, 2005 @ 4:52 am | Comment

Look like my beloved NY Times is losing its credibility.
Posted by JR at April 21, 2005 12:20 AM

Judith Chalabi and Mr. BoBo Brooks?

And Richard, I’d say it’s a bit extreme to go with the CR analogy. Personally I’ve gone with the English Football Hooligan analogy. There is a bit of the mob amuck mentality to both (and to the French Revolution or to the Nazi Rallies in Munich of Ratzinger’s youth.)

The Chinese marches weren’t generated to topple any leaders, not even the Japanese ambassador or consular official, whereas most (almost all?) CR marches were targeting specific opposition cadres, even when the protests were about Chinese opera.

Football hooligans do some low-level vandalism (smashing shop windows, kick or over turn cars that are handy, throw some beer bottles) and get in to some low-level fisticuffs.

I do think the reaction of dismay by onlookers is real to some degree. I’ve posited that this was intentional in order to relieve a bit of social tension in the run up to what could be a long hot summer. (threats of urban inflation still nagging with oil and coal prices not receding and growth not coming in for that soft landing)

April 21, 2005 @ 4:53 am | Comment

I have to say that those people that took part in the demonstrations were uneducated idiots controlled by none other than the Chinese government. There they are, raging about the atrocities done by the Japanese in Nanjing and how Japanese governement honors those WWII generals in their shrines. I wonder if they even realize the fact that miilions of Chinese people were executed by Mao Zedong’s regime (yes, our own people) during the Cultural Revolution and now he’s being glorified with his picture hung on the wall of Tiananmen Square!!! These demonstrators are either ingnorant or hypocrite…I don’t know which one is worse.

April 21, 2005 @ 5:11 am | Comment

Have any of you seen this “discussion” of the China-Japan issue? Scary.

April 21, 2005 @ 6:09 am | Comment

Greta, I just waded through 70 comments at the link you provided … I couldn’t find anything there I’d call “scary” … if anything, debate at the Duck has been more robust?

April 21, 2005 @ 7:30 am | Comment

Mr French must know how to mind-read all these Chinese bystanders who went thru the CR.

No, he interviewed some of them, as you’ll see in the article.

April 21, 2005 @ 8:18 am | Comment

About the argument some of you are making about how absurd it is to compare this to the CR….

There is no comparison in terms of scale and intent. The CR was designed to destroy all memory of the great Chiunese culture and make Mao the total reason for existence (yes, it’s more complicated than that). There is one way and one way only that many onlookers (including me) made the comparison:

Angry young Chinese suported by the government sent out to shriek, throw things, hurl insults and appear somewhat like indoctrinated automatons. Period, full stop, end of story. Now, you can parse away at this and say, well they didn’t kill anyone or most didn’t do anything violent. True, basically. But did it bring back memories of the CR in terms of its appearance? Absolutely, at least to many onlookers. And that’s that.

April 21, 2005 @ 8:24 am | Comment

Richard, after reading dozens of articles you posted here and hundreds of comments posted by many visitors to this blog, the frustration I accumulated has reached the point that I must break my silence on this hot topic which had attracted the attention of so many international elite newspapers.

Richard, I don’t know whether you have read the posts about the anti-Japanese demonstations in China on ESWN, especially the one titled “The Roots of Anti-Japanese Feelings in China” (http://www.zonaeuropa.com/20050412_1.htm). I have to say that of all the articles and posts I’ve seen to date, this one captures my own feelings (sorry for borrowing your words): that no matter how irrational and misguided those demonstrators seemed to be or really were, you can not simply regard them as puppets in a political show which was choregraphed by the Chinese govt and dismiss the signals they wanted to delivery to the outside world with outright mockery.

In my view, which is totally contrary to yours, these demonstrators and their ardent supporters, most of them young students, represent the future of China, and given time, may also become the major force pushing China toward democracy and freedom. When they poured onto the streets, raising banners and chanting slogans denouncing japanese historical revisionism, them are not simply venting their spleen upon an easy target, but are at the same time reminding the govt and even the larger world that Chinese youngsters are not blind money worshippers or spineless bookworms, they care about their country, they care about truth, and most importantly, they care about freedom. You may think that they fall into the catagory of “sanitized one taught in China’s history books”, or “uneducated idiots controlled by none other than the Chinese government”, but you are wrong. To prove my point, here I tell you a story: the week before last I happened to have a chance to communicate with a group of senior high school students and freshmen/sophomore college students, as our conversations were conducted in English at a classroom of a English-teaching institue, we felt quite free to speak openly about politics and somewhat to my surprise, all of them knew more or less about the “three-year famine”, most of them knew a great lot about the atrocities committed by the red guards and political hooligans under Mao’s instruction during the CR, and some of them even knew what it was like on TianAnMen Square at the dawn of July 4th of 1989. The key point is, although most of these historic incidents are largely misrepresented or even omitted in Chinese historic textbooks, that didn’t stop them seeking the truth through self-teaching and self-reserching, mainly through reading in libraries and suring internet. So, believe it or not, Chinese young people are not that naive as to be easily brainwashed or manipulated at the govt’s will. That day we also talked about the demonstrations against Japan, and you could imagine, most of them fervently supported the movement and were disgusted by Japan’s tipping toward the right and its brazen denial of historical crimes. However, more than half of them thought that the pelting of the Japanese Embassy was unreasonable and should be stopped, I remember a boy, who is planning to go to Monash University of Australia later this year to pursue his BS degree said, “It’s outrageous of them to humiliate us with such lies and ugliness, but when could it come to a day that we can all be tolerant enough as to forgive them? China and Japan are so closely linked to each other that we can not afford a break-up.”

This is a story I want to share with you and all the commentators in this blog. Please, don’t underestimate those young demonstrators and their generation.

April 21, 2005 @ 11:58 am | Comment

Mainlander, I appreciate your comments. I am a public relations person and former journalist and I always look at how things appear. There is often a huge difference between how things appear and how they really are, but in the end, appearance is always more important. We make almost all of our judgements about things based on their apperance, how they strike us.

I believe you when you say many of these demonstrators were sincere and wonderful. Really. But I am writing about what the world saw last week, and it is the opposite of what you describe. They saw angry robots. That may be incorrect, but that is how the demonstrators positioned themselves, intentionally or not. They saw the police offering transportation to the rallies and eggs to throw. As the article I quote above says, some who lived through the CR saw it as a painful reminder of China’s ugliest moment.

I wasn’t there, and have needed to depend on reporters and bloggers I trust. Most concur with this general point – that the riots did not elevate China in the eyes of the world. Maybe in their own eyes; I can’t say. I have seen almost no stories taking the position that this was a good and useful and justified exercise, except from a few very questionable sources (and I gave both lots of space on this blog).

I worked in a company in China and managed 40 young people, so I know just how smart they are. Some were very rigid in their thinking, but they knew the essential truths about China’s history. But in this case I think the reporter was making a valid point, that even those who were best educated only saw the issue through the state-supported filter, Japan disgusting, China glorious.

April 21, 2005 @ 12:16 pm | Comment

Richard, this may well be unnecessarily pedantic nit-picking, but I’m still in the process of re-caffeinating myself. There’s one point in that last comment of yours I have to disagree with: There most certainly usually is a huge difference between appearance and reality; We most certainly do make most judgements based on appearance; Appearance, however, is most certainly not more important than reality. If we focus too much on how these anti-Japan demonstrations appeared, and get bogged down in ultimately meaningless arguments about which historical events they can be compared to, the reality of the situation may well turn around and bite us on the arse.

I haven’t yet seen an account of any of the protests which I could trust as being even an attempt at fair and objective coverage. There are many reasons why different accounts fall short, and that’s not important right now. So I’m trying to piece together all these different accounts, all the analysis, and the many things I’ve been seeing and hearing here in Beijing.

You and I both know the enormous potential of China’s youth, and I think we’re both equally hopeful for the future. However, there are things wrapped in these protests which have me worried. I don’t think there’s so much government control (or even sponsorship or encouragement) so much as tolerance, a recognition of the need to let off some steam, and use of the protests as a political tool in its relationship with Japan. I do think there are ‘elements’ in the protest movement who may well use the opportunity to advance a very different agenda that could do a large amount of damage to Chinese society.

Still, it’s damn near impossible to know one way or another. I wish the media would make a better attempt at fairness and objectivity. That would make things easier. But really, the ‘appearance’ of these protests is nowhere near as important as the reality of the movement.

And I really don’t give a damn whether comparisons to the Cultural Revolution are valid or not. These protests leave many of us uncomfortable for a wide variety of reasons.

Need more caffeine…..

April 21, 2005 @ 7:32 pm | Comment

We most certainly do make most judgements based on appearance; Appearance, however, is most certainly not more important than reality.

Chris, look at it this way: In terms of history and gaining a true persepctive and understanding, of course the reality is more important.

But it is the appearance, not the reality, that causes people to act in this world. Women in Salem truly appeared to the townspeople to be witches. Jews in Hitler Germany truly appeared to the fanatics as subhuman bacteria. Bush truly appears to be an aw-shucks country boy and not a skull-and-bones member, and people cast the ballot based on appearance, almost never substance. (Which is why the president is always looked at for the most superficial things and irrelevant behavior and rarely from a deep or historical perspective.) That’s all. So when I say appearance is more important, I mean important in the sense that appearance creates our beliefs, true or false. Not reality, in most cases. Now, sometimes the apperance and the reality are the same. But it can be wildly different, and people are still more affected by appearance. Do they really believe Ultra Bright will give their smile sex appeal or that their pleasure will be doubled by Doublemint gum or that Bush is a man of the people and pork-rind chewing friend to the working people who hangs out at Nascar? Of course not, but many people are highly influenced by how things are presented to them. Remember, my profession is PR so this is a topic close to my heart. it is what I do every day, and I can tell you miracles I’ve performed during the dot-com days that would make your hair stand on end — all based on these principles. We could almost literally get people to believe black was white. And, sadly, we convinced ourselves as well. Looking back at it now, I’m amazed we all fell for it.

Mark Anthony Jones, I’ll get to you later. ๐Ÿ™‚

April 22, 2005 @ 8:07 am | Comment

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