China: Unanswered Questions

In his excellent review of John Pomfret’s Chinese Lessons, China hand and Berkeley journalism school dean Orville Schell comments on the source of Pomfret’s concerns for China’s future – its unwillingness to confront its past.

The discontinuity between China’s ‘socialist’ past and ‘capitalist’ present perplexes Pomfret. But it is the unfathomable depth of unexpiated guilt for the brutalization the Chinese heaped on one another under Mao that leaves him most mystified. Since there is little likelihood of public reckoning with the barbarity of the Cultural Revolution as long as the Communist Party rules unilaterally, he sees a basic blockage at the moral heart of China’s spectacular rise. It’s something that makes him very tentative about the future.

So we are left to wonder: Does it matter that there has never been a full public apology for the nightmare of the Communist revolution, that no Chinese leader has ever symbolically knelt down as a form of national penance for the party’s crimes against its people, much as the German Chancellor Willy Brandt did in the Warsaw Ghetto for crimes against the Jews of Europe? Indeed, if the watchword in Germany is now ‘Never forget,’ in China it is ‘Never remember.’

In 1945, the German philosopher Karl Jaspers gave a series of unflinching lectures at the University of Heidelberg on The Question of German Guilt, saying that the nation needed a psychological purification. ‘The temptation to evade this question is obvious,’ he acknowledged. รขโ‚ฌล“We live in distress – large parts of our population are in so great and such acute distress that they seem to have become insensitive to discussions.’

Jaspers then entreated his countrymen to understand that their distress could only be relieved by ‘truthfulness toward ourselves.’ As he put it, ‘the guilt question is more than a question put to us by others, it is one we put to ourselves. The way we answer it will be decisive for our present approach to the world and ourselves.’

No philosopher or public figure in China has been permitted to give the kind of open acknowledgment that Jaspers, and many other Germans, did. And, because Chinese media outlets remain tightly controlled, no such ceremonial moment of honest re-evaluation, much less national catharsis, seems likely any time soon.

The issue of whether China ultimately chooses to confront its past or continues ‘hiding behind history’ will almost certainly end up being as important to its future as all the foreign investment, technology transfers, I.P.O.’s and high-rise buildings that now so impress visitors and eclipse the past. As one former classmate, a Red Guard who beat and tortured supposed ‘class enemies’ during the Cultural Revolution, candidly asks Pomfret: ‘How do you think a society where that type of behavior was condoned, no, not condoned, mandated, can heal itself? Do you think it ever can?’

Some are trying, for sure. The most common technique appears to be to half-heartedly acknowledge the “30 percent wrong” part of the picture, but then to sweep it under the table. The brilliance of the “economic miracle” blinds the eye and lets us forget and forgive annoying distractions like June 4 and other warts. The interview I held with a 1989 demonstrator captured it all for me.

Looking back, I firmly believe the government did the right thing, though they could have handled it better. We paid a high price. Our leaders in 1989 could have shown greater human skills and greater negotiating skills. But let’s live with Communism for now and change things one thing at a time. The Chinese now have a much better life than they did 100 years ago.

We are making money now, so forgive, forget, and don’t ask too many questions. I understand this attitude. I would probably harbor it myself if I were in David’s (my interviewee’s) position. China has stood up and it casts an immense shadow. China’s unwillingness to come to terms with its past, however, continues to hobble the country as it is forced to turn to such cheap gimmicks as breathless nationalism, sophomoric propaganda and ruthless censorship in order to deflect attention from its bloody and unhealed past. Pomfret’s point is well taken.

My own review of Chinese lessons can be found here.

The Discussion: 38 Comments

You know, my grandfather often talks about Brandt and his gesture. He used it to illustrate how Japan has never fully apologized. I’d never quite thought to look at it the way you mentioned here. ๐Ÿ™‚

August 6, 2006 @ 9:36 pm | Comment

Is it an Asian face-conscious thing – just as Japan won’t apologise/atone for its war atrocities? Or does China need to undergo a bit of national “ziwo piping”?

August 6, 2006 @ 11:17 pm | Comment

This whole matter is an important one, I think. I started a thread in the pond called “Forgetting the Past.” The gist of it is what bad things will happen to China if it forgets? I mean really practical, take it to the bank bad things.

August 6, 2006 @ 11:42 pm | Comment

Here’s a link to Iron Buddha’s thread:

http://www.pekingduck.org/pond/viewtopic.php?t=570

My response to Iron Buddha’s question is that in the long run, lies cannot be “taken to the bank.” Lying is not practical, in the long run. See what I wrote about the physicist/scientific-humanist Jacob Bronowski and what he said about the “habit of truth”.

August 7, 2006 @ 2:19 am | Comment

This is definitely the Asian face saving thing. It’s the same reason that the Japanese won’t sincerely apologize for the war atrocities. Of course, because China is under the communist dictatorship, it’s even worse. They should all learn from the Germans. For this reason, I think the Asian culture will always the second rated compared to Western culture.

August 7, 2006 @ 8:16 am | Comment

An artifact of the cultural revolution is addressed in the July 13 issue of the Chinese propaganda magazine “Beijing Review”. http://www.bjreview.com.cn/06-28-e/snapshot.htm

August 7, 2006 @ 10:01 am | Comment

I would say it’s only the government position.

Actually in chinese blogsphere and internet forums there are vigorous debates over the history of the past 100 years.

August 7, 2006 @ 10:48 am | Comment

the response by the 1989 demonstrator is in fact very illuminating, if we are not too prejudiced by presumptions & moral high grounds to understand it.

we are NOT the people who experienced Tiananmen or cultural revolution so maybe humility and willingness to open our ears and hearts to listen helps.

who decides that a nation cannot forgive & forget? who decides that there must be public reckoning? the people who are truly contributing to China are the ones who try to solve the people’s problems, farmers’ problems and improve the quality of life of the China’s people..they are not the ones with the time to make academic arguments about guilt and reckoning…the objective guide is what increase the sum total of human happiness, not some moral grandstanding of people who neither experienced the monstrosity nor participate or contribute to new China’s rebuilding and growth..

to me the simple answer to when China will come to terms with the past is when the general population of China has all reached a decent standard of living and the horrific past is forgiven but not forgotten and serves as object lesson of what can go wrong in any society that serves the whims only 1 man whether he is Huangdi or Red Emperor…and the reckoning will be a natural process with the passage of time and not according to the dictates of any pressure groups…

Andy

August 7, 2006 @ 10:55 am | Comment

Ah, so Arabian Nights is the troll “Hello” in Birmingham, AL – I knew something was “off” with his comments. They’ll all be gone shortly.

Richard

August 7, 2006 @ 5:04 pm | Comment

This is definitely the Asian face saving thing. It’s the same reason that the Japanese won’t sincerely apologize for the war atrocities.

Nonsense. Has America ever apologized for its atrocities in Vietnam, and the Philippines? Do yu think we’re going to apologize for our illegal and criminal war in Iraq, one long atrocity? Nope. This has nothing to do with being Asian.

I think the S African example of a truth commission is great. I wish we could have one in Taiwan, so that all the people lost in the White Terror could find peace, and society heal. Taiwan has the same problem that China does — the old regime won’t apologize and won’t critically examine itself.

I suspect Korea must have the same problem as well, with the massive atrocities there by both sides during the war, as well as the political authoritarianism that gripped the nation for most of the last few decades.

This is not an Asian problem. It is a human problem.

Michael

August 7, 2006 @ 6:55 pm | Comment

This blog has consistently and frequently blasted Japan on this topic. Nice attempt to change the subject, though.

August 7, 2006 @ 6:56 pm | Comment

T’s kind of strange how some Westerners are more concerned about Chinese apologizing to Chinese themselves than about Japan being truly repentant about its past.

Can you tell us how you measured that “more concerned?” It seems to be rather subjective.

August 7, 2006 @ 6:57 pm | Comment

The gist of it is what bad things will happen to China if it forgets? I mean really practical, take it to the bank bad things.

It could happen again.

August 7, 2006 @ 7:22 pm | Comment

And because it was a self-inflicted wound, and not pain inflicted on other nations, the Chinese will determine when it is best to come to terms on the issue.

In the meantime, go get Koizumi. He should at least know better since Japan is a democracy and has been under American tutelage for the past 50 years.

Why should Westerners “go get Koizumi”? If what happened between the Chinese is an internal matter, then whatever the Japanese did to China is a bilateral matter between Japan and China.

August 7, 2006 @ 7:37 pm | Comment

By that standard, Sonagi, since we’re all not Jewish, we shouldn’t criticize neo-Nazis either… and because I’m not black, I shouldn’t detest the KKK either. But the difference between the above groups, Japan, and the CCP is that the former did not stop until an outside actor came to check their actions. The CCP, by contrast, is the only oppressive institution that has self-limited its oppression and eliminated its mass oppression apparatus. (Oppression is now surgically targeted–the analogous difference between carpet bombing and surgical airstrikes.)

August 7, 2006 @ 9:03 pm | Comment

Andy, this is not an academic question. My grandfather died in a prison in China during the Cultural Revolution in 1971. He was a landlord and a rightist (he owned two fields to grow watermelon). Since then, his name has been rehabilitated but there was never an explanation or apology. It was all blamed on Jiang Qing and the Si Ren Bang. Even afterwards for many years we were known as a “landlord family” and suffered discrimination in education until the 1990s.
In China, nobody ever talks in public about this time – it is like private family shame. Some young people are very ignorant about this time of “great turmoil” and there are even some who have nostalgia for these “ood old days”. If we do not understand how things could go so bad in the past, how will we stop it happening again?

August 7, 2006 @ 10:18 pm | Comment

Oppression is now surgically targeted–the analogous difference between carpet bombing and surgical airstrikes

I think that’s not too bad an analogy, considering that it’s not uncommon for Israeli and American “surgical” airstrikes to end up killing innocent people who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

August 7, 2006 @ 10:19 pm | Comment

HLL, many thanks for that sobering comment. Andy wants to “wait until the right moment” to ask why your grandfather died in prison (which could be a very looooong wait), lest the question rock the boat and creat disharmony. But as you say, without learning from past mistakes there is no opportunity for learning and advancement. Santayana phrased it perfectly when he said that those who ignore the past are forced to repeat it.

August 7, 2006 @ 10:23 pm | Comment

“China will come to terms with the past is when the general population of China has all reached a decent standard of living”

And when will this be? Can you give me a year? A target year? A GDP or per-capita income figure so I can get the sound stage ready?

This is the excuse of the dictator and his henchmen. When the “decent standard of living” has been reached, they will deny that it has been reached. When it becomes impossible to deny, they will find some other excuse to put off the day of reckoning. Don’t give me bullshit about how “China is not ready.” Be honest and tell me the truth: Andy, you never want to see the truth revealed because it would endanger your beloved Party. That’s about the gist of it, right?

August 7, 2006 @ 11:57 pm | Comment

I’ll be honest about my motivations. I wouldn’t want to see the truth revealed, because the turmoil would screw the hell out my investments.

August 8, 2006 @ 12:01 am | Comment

I’m reminded of the gou-rou.com headline, “China better than before so no reason to ever complain”.

And, for that matter, “Politics ‘unimportant’, says man with new digital camera”.

August 8, 2006 @ 2:37 am | Comment

Huh? What? Chinese should apologize to Chinese ourselves?

Hey, people, it’s not about “saving face”. It is about a rational China not doing single most ridiculous and stupid political antic in human history. Have you ever heard of any country that ever “apologized to itself”?! If China really “apologizes to itself”, the whole world will freak out because they will think China has gone crazy and will probably be crazy enough to push the “launch nuclear” button soon.

That must be some really powerful stuff that Orville Schell guy had been smoking. Or maybe he was trying to take jab at China or Chinese for something else. Most likely Tibet. He could have just come right out and said it. Instead, he just went round and round in his article without making any sense. “China should apologize to Tibet” is not going to happen, but at least it does not sound idiotic and insane.

Seriously, guys, if you are so desperate to look for a pretense to bash China and Chinese, at least try to come up with something that is rational and less stupid.

August 8, 2006 @ 3:05 am | Comment

“Have you ever heard of any country that ever “apologized to itself”

Yes. Germans spent a great deal of time coming to terms with what they did to others as well as to each other, Americans make an effort to right the wrongs of enslaving their countrymen and those whom they stole land from, the Cambodians work very hard to address the evils that (the Communist) Khemr Rouge perpetrated on other Cambodians.

Self-reflection and the ability “to apoligize to your self” are hallmarks of a civilized nation in this day and age. It is my sincere hope that China can re-join the ranks of civilized nations soon.

August 8, 2006 @ 3:39 am | Comment

“Have you ever heard of any country that ever “apologized to itself”

Yes. Germans spent a great deal of time coming to terms with what they did to others as well as to each other, Americans make an effort to right the wrongs of enslaving their countrymen and those whom they stole land from, the Cambodians work very hard to address the evils that (the Communist) Khemr Rouge perpetrated on other Cambodians.

Self-reflection and the ability “to apoligize to your self” are hallmarks of a civilized nation in this day and age. It is my sincere hope that China can re-join the ranks of civilized nations soon.

August 8, 2006 @ 3:40 am | Comment

“Have you ever heard of any country that ever “apologized to itself?”

Yes. Germans spent a great deal of time coming to terms with what they did to others as well as to each other, Americans make an effort to right the wrongs of enslaving their countrymen and those whom they stole land from, the Cambodians work very hard to address the evils that (the Communist) Khemr Rouge perpetrated on other Cambodians. Many other nations do this too.

Self-reflection and the ability “to apoligize to your self” are hallmarks of a civilized nation in this day and age. It is my sincere hope that China can re-join the ranks of civilized nations soon.

August 8, 2006 @ 3:40 am | Comment

I don’t know if it’s so much China apologizing to itself, as the CCP apologizing to the Chinese people. They’re different entities, though obviously the former is composed of some of the latter.

August 8, 2006 @ 4:14 am | Comment

Andy, this is not an academic question. My grandfather died in a prison in China during the Cultural Revolution in 1971.

HLL I agree with you and sorry to know your loss. and I support “an explanation or apology” and talking openly to “understand how things could go so bad in the past” especially by people who really want to make life better for people in China and to heal those who suffered. I am not Chinese citizen, do not live in China and do not care about (meaning no vested interest to support or attack) the CCP.

Andy

August 8, 2006 @ 4:58 am | Comment

Andy, this is not an academic question. My grandfather died in a prison in China during the Cultural Revolution in 1971.

HLL I agree with you and sorry to know your loss. and I support “an explanation or apology” and talking openly to “understand how things could go so bad in the past” especially by people who really want to make life better for people in China and to heal those who suffered. I am not Chinese citizen, do not live in China and do not care about (meaning no vested interest to support or attack) the CCP.

Andy

August 8, 2006 @ 5:02 am | Comment

Ah, so Arabian Nights is the troll “Hello” in Birmingham, AL – I knew something was “off” with his comments. They’ll all be gone shortly.

Richard

August 8, 2006 @ 9:04 am | Comment

Actually, Hawaii is a “majority/minority” state.

I’m not really in the mood to defend the US because I’m way beyond anger with what my country has done in the last six years. I do agree however that talking openly about the sins of the past is vitally important. It’s a real stunner for me that so many Americans were willing to trust the government and go along with an Iraq war after the lessons of Vietnam. I’d really thought after that there would be far more hesitation to engage in foreign adventurism. Guess I was wrong…

But without honest discussion, I don’t see how nations heal themselves from past wounds and move on. If trauma is supressed, it tends to play out in different, unpredictable ways. In fact I think part of why we have violence in our culture here (and a pro-war mentality) can be traced to the aftermath of WW2. That was a war that most would agree needed to be fought (against Nazi/Japanese aggression), but that doesn’t mean that combat wasn’t a traumatic experience for many who participated in it. Those men were treated as heroes when they returned, but they still suffered. And it simply wasn’t talked about. That wasn’t part of the culture at the time. How much family abuse and violence and just plain dysfunction can be attributed to these supressed traumas?

It’s not always possible to atone or repair the sins of the past, but it’s important to understand how we got to where we are.

August 8, 2006 @ 10:33 am | Comment

Arabian Nights, keep it up and you won’t be around here for long. This is now the third comment of yours I’ve seen this morning that is devoid of reasoning. Consider yourself warned, not based on your point of view but your use of straw men and obviously false arguments.

August 8, 2006 @ 11:11 am | Comment

First thing first. The Iron Buddha needs to stop reposting the same message multiple times.

“Yes. Germans spent a great deal of time coming to terms with what they did to others as well as to each other, Americans make an effort to right the wrongs of enslaving their countrymen and those whom they stole land from, the Cambodians work very hard to address the evils that (the Communist) Khemr Rouge perpetrated on other Cambodians.”

The German government apologized to Jews. Germans have never apologized to Germans themselves (for what?!?) The American government might have apologized to blacks and native Americans. Americans have never apologized to Americans themselves.

Do you say sorry to yourself if you cut or hurt yourself (accidentally or not) or, let say, run into a glass door? (If you do, you need to see psychiatrist.) As I have said, the suggestion that the Chinese government should apologize to, let say, Tibet is not as absurb as Chinese should apologize to Chinese ourselves. (The former ain’t gonna happen in your lifetime. The later sounds schizophrenic.)

Now, if anyone wants to suggest that the Chinese communist government should apologize to its people, then please clearly say so. At least people would not realize right away you are a Sinophobic if you clearly stated “communist government” instead of just Chinese this and Chinese that.

Also, most Chinese (even those from China) do not expect the CCP to stay around forever. I know because Americans has one long, continual government and political system in its short 200-plus-year history, Americans tend to equate a government to the country and its people . Chinese do not see a government that way. China has been around for at least 10 times longer. There have been many governments in China’s history. Some past Chinese governments lasted twice as long as the American government. As we say, “Governments come and go. China endures.”

So, why should Chinese care if the current government apologizes to Chinese? It is not like the CCP is going to stick around forever.

August 8, 2006 @ 12:44 pm | Comment

America has often opened the books on its sins and apologized to its own people, such as blacks and Native Americans and the Japanese-Americans we interred in WW2. We have done this countless times. You have no idea what you are talking about.

I’m also noticing some interesting coincidences in yours and Arabian Night;s posts, and I don’t like it. Your comment in the other thread, on the slaughter of dogs in China, was really pushing it. Keep it up….

August 8, 2006 @ 1:02 pm | Comment

I’m not ArabianNight if that was what you were thinking. I have never even read any of his messages. You can check our ISPs and see the difference.

August 8, 2006 @ 1:33 pm | Comment

Okay, I will take your word for it, but you both appeared at the same moment with some very similar arguments…. And again, I am really unhappy about your comment on the dog killings, and am weighing whether I want you commenting oin my site. Differences in opinion are great. Expressing glee at the clubbing to death of animals sickens me.

August 8, 2006 @ 1:35 pm | Comment

“It’s the same reason that the Japanese won’t sincerely apologize for the war atrocities”

What is “sincere”? Japan has made something like 80 public apologies in the last thirty years:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_war_apology_statements_issued_by_Japan

“I suspect Korea must have the same problem as well, with the massive atrocities there by both sides during the war, as well as the political authoritarianism that gripped the nation for most of the last few decades.”

Koreans are examining both allegations of atrocities by South Korean and American soldiers during the Korean War and the issue of pro-Japanese collaborators. By convicting and jailing ex-Presidents Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo, Korea has pretty much laid to rest the ghosts of right-wing authoritarianism although the odd past case of wrongful imprisonment or torture does arise from time to time.

@t_co: “By that standard, Sonagi, since we’re all not Jewish, we shouldn’t criticize neo-Nazis either… and because I’m not black, I shouldn’t detest the KKK either. But the difference between the above groups, Japan, and the CCP is that the former did not stop until an outside actor came to check their actions. The CCP, by contrast, is the only oppressive institution that has self-limited its oppression and eliminated its mass oppression apparatus. (“

Actually, t-co, I do not accept the notion of “internal affairs.” We are all human beings who share the earth together, and we should all be concerned about what happens beyong the artificial borders we’ve drawn.

I also think your distinction between the CCP and Japan is irrelevant. The CCP halted the Cultural Revolution only after the death of Mao. Had Mao died ten years earlier, the Cultural Revolution probably never would have happened. Moreover, there have been many oppressive governments around the world that have limited their oppression to certain groups, usually ethnic or religious minorities or those opposed to the government.

I do not see this issue in terms of apologies but rather historical honesty. Japan has apologized enough. The significant difference between Japan and China is that Chinese history books are silent or vague about unpleasant events in modern history like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

August 8, 2006 @ 1:49 pm | Comment

“The German government apologized to Jews. Germans have never apologized to Germans themselves (for what?!?) The American government might have apologized to blacks and native Americans. Americans have never apologized to Americans themselves.”

Square Peg, You are an idiot. The Native Americans and blacks we’re talking about ARE Americans. So yes, we did apologize to ourselves, as civilized people do.

And another thing, the reason I posted multiple times is because of China’s shitty internet connections and service providers. You want me to not mistakenly post multiple times? Tell the Chinese government to tear down the Great Fire Wall and get some grown up communications infrastructure

August 8, 2006 @ 10:38 pm | Comment

Thank you, Buddha. Square Peg is indeed an idiot. Anyone who has doubts has to see his comment in the Yunnan dog slaughter thread. He cannot distinguish between killing people’s beloved pets in front of their eyes and killing wildlife for food or fur. Idiot indeed.

August 8, 2006 @ 10:50 pm | Comment

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