Confronting history

I recently heard a BBC World Service radio programme, Missing Histories – China and Japan. This documentary about Sino-Japanese relations features journalists, Mariko Oi from Japan and Haining Liu from China, who took it turns to visit the other’s country. The two Asian powerhouses have a complicated relationship. At the heart of the problem is what China perceives as Japan’s wilful refusal to acknowledge the 1937 Nanking Massacre. As part of the country’s patriotic education policy films and documentaries depicting China’s resistance to the Japanese invasion have become a staple of Chinese television schedules.

Relations had begun to improve after Shinzo Abe became the Prime Minister of Japan in September 2006. There were even some attempts to reach a consensus on Nanjing. However, in the last few years tensions have resurfaced over a number of contentious issues:

1. Japan has accused China of withholding its reserves of valuable rare earth elements.
2. The Diaoyu Islands dispute has sparked a number of hostile skirmishes in the East China Sea.
3. Anti-Japanese feeling has led to frequent riots and protests in China.

The programme was an emotive one, especially for Haining Liu, whose family is from Nanjing. She wanted to walk out of an interview with one Japanese academic who kept referring to the Nanjing “incident”. He then went on to downplay the loss of Chinese lives. It was an exercise in cynicism. But I was also interested in the reaction of the Chinese reporter, who became tearful and said she felt like she was being bullied. I shared her outrage at the sophistry of the Japanese academic.

However, China also needs to look at its own history. What Chairman Mao did to the Chinese was also brutal. Yet successive Chinese governments have attempted to whitewash these atrocities. I have already written about the tendency to gloss over communist atrocities in a previous post. I have never been able why the image of a mass murderer, Chairman Mao, should be acceptable on a t-shirt. This desire to glorify the past is also present in Putin’s Russia.

In Missing Histories one of the Japanese academics argued that the purpose of studying history was to make people feel good about their country. I fundamentally disagree – history should teach us about our country warts and all. But this should be done with balance. What we need is to look at our past in an honest way. That does not mean only looking only at the negative. Recently we have seen the success of the Oscar-winning Twelve Years a Slave, and it is indeed a powerful film. Slavery, though, is not a Western monopoly. It is almost a human universal. We rarely hear of the Arab slave trade I do think that the founding fathers of the United States were remarkable men. But they were the product of the time in which they lived. The Declaration of Independence was a work of genius. But many of the men who signed it were slave-owners. This is why history is so fascinating, but it is not a subject in which to find easy moral lessons or faultless role models.

How should we deal with poisonous historical legacies? Every country has its dark episodes. In Spain we have two such questions. The Spanish transition is generally held up as a model political process. I think in general it was handled well. It would have been a mistake to have had mass arrests after the demise of General Franco. Spain is now a fully fledged democracy. After a century which saw two dictatorships, a failed republic and a civil war that is not a bad achievement. However, I would have liked to have seen a Spanish equivalent of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The second issue is the end of ETA. I am not sure if people here realise that one of the disagreeable prices of ending the conflict will have to be the release of terrorists. When you seek resolution, compromises need to be made. It is not perfect but the most important aspect is the future. In this sense I consider myself a pragmatist.

The example of Nelson Mandela comes to mind. After spending more than two decades of his life on Robben Island the typical reaction would have been a thirst for revenge. Not only did Mandela not seek payback, but he was somehow able to put himself in the shoes of the white minority. It is hard, but sometimes we have to follow the examples of Mandela or the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. And I want to conclude with an example of reconciliation that would have been unthinkable after the end of the Second World War. France and Germany now have common textbooks for history. If only this example were followed in more places.



One Response to Confronting history

  1. Alberto says:

    I disagree with your view, as you consider equivalent situations that are dramatically different.

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