Abe’s Legacy Has More Painful Overtones in China

Abe’s Legacy Has More Painful Overtones in China
Chinese soldiers look at photographs of survivors of the Nanjing Massacre at the National Museum of China in Beijing, Aug. 12, 2005 (AP photo by Elizabeth Dalziel).
To prominent Asia watchers and policymakers, making sense of the assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has involved going beyond the man himself to reflect on the politics of the Asia he envisioned. In practice, that means that not only has Abe the man been mourned, but his legacy lauded, too. Matt Pottinger, the former White House coordinator for Asia policy under then-U.S. President Donald Trump, summed up the general sentiment in an op-ed that described Abe as having popularized the idea of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” among regional states wary of China’s rise, turning it into a unifying narrative. In Pottinger’s telling, as in most accounts, Abe’s vision—and his life’s work—was portrayed as a check on the power of the Chinese Communist Party, his major diplomatic and security adversary. The post-mortem framing of political figures is itself a consequential foreign policy decision, one that states often use to signify a commitment to historical narratives that suit their present-day strategic needs. In the case of Abe, because of Washington’s current needs, he is cast as a statesman who modernized his country, particularly its relationship with military power. Meanwhile, his denialism about Japan’s World War II-era atrocities is smoothed over, depicted as something mildly controversial or even necessary to bring Japan into the 21st century and to counter a rising China under President Xi Jinping’s rule. As such, Abe is credited with having sounded the alarm on the threat China poses to regional security, with forging regional security partnerships and with keeping Japan’s relationship with the U.S. on track during the chaotic years of Trump’s presidency.

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Yet it’s worth going into the details of Abe’s denialism about Japan’s wartime legacy, because it has had a direct and far-reaching impact on regional politics and security today. As Alexis Dudden, a historian at the University of Connecticut, told The New Yorker, Abe generally tried to distance Japan from responsibility for its wartime atrocities. That included downplaying the role of Japanese forces in the 1937 massacre of Chinese civilians in Nanjing, China, and calling into question Japan’s postwar apologies to the so-called comfort women, the South Korean women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during the war. Despite the gravity of these positions, which are comparable to Holocaust denialism, they are often characterized as little more than controversial, or else they are justified in Washington policymaking circles as necessary due to regional security concerns over China. In general, Washington prefers to frame modern Japan as a vanguard of East Asian statecraft, a tendency that results from the security-centered connective tissue that grew between the U.S. and Japan during the Cold War era. Back then, the postwar U.S. military occupation of Japan, combined with fears of communist China and North Korea, led the U.S. to pivot away from its prior demonization of Japan, replete with caricatures of slanty eyes and buck teeth. In China, meanwhile, historical memory of Japan’s atrocities during the war remains a sore spot for Chinese nationalists, especially because of the Abe family’s role in them. In the 1930s, Abe’s maternal grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, oversaw economic and industrial policy in Manchuria, which was then the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo, where the infamous Unit 731 conducted torture and human experimentation on the Chinese population. Kishi went on to become prime minister in 1957. As a result of this family legacy, Chinese social media users reacted ambivalently to the news of Abe’s assassination. Some nationalist commenters even flagged promotional deals for meals and milk tea in celebration, although others condemned such a reaction to an assassination. “An old man gets shot and falls to the ground, yet you are gloating over it. Where is the morality? Where is your bottom line?” one user wrote in a Weibo post. Nevertheless, Chinese nationalists view Japan not only as a perpetrator of historical atrocities, but also as a present-day strategic adversary. And they consider the efforts by Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party to amend the U.S.-penned Article 9 of Japan’s constitution, which renounces war and the use of force to settle international disputes, as a direct threat to China. Abe previously tried to rewrite this clause and failed, but the LDP won a supermajority in last weekend’s parliamentary elections that could allow it to try again. As for the LDP’s revisionism over Japan’s wartime atrocities, many Koreans, Filipinos and citizens of other former Japanese colonies affected by the war concur with their Chinese counterparts, even if they are also wary of a future in which Beijing dominates the region. Such are the shared wounds of a horrific era of violence and trauma. In his New York Times essay eulogizing Abe, Japan analyst and WPR contributor Tobias Harris compared the late prime minister’s legacy to the Meiji Restoration of 1868, which kickstarted Japan’s colonial ambitions toward China, Taiwan and South Korea. After summarizing Abe’s career as the pursuit of a stronger Japanese state, Harris concluded, “Mr. Abe died just as the Japanese people were possibly coming to appreciate his vision of a strong state capable of defending the nation in a dangerous world.” But regardless of the practical advantages of a strong Japan, Abe deliberately blurred his country’s own dangerous histories of rape, conquest and violence that gripped Asia from the Philippines to the not-yet-divided Korean Peninsula, and from Taiwan to wide swaths of the Chinese mainland. By paving over this legacy for the sake of strategic opportunism, Washington risks erasing a far broader swath of history beyond China.

In Other News

Over a thousand working-class demonstrators gathered in front of the local branch of the People’s Bank of China in Zhengzhou, in Henan province, to demand access to their accounts in four rural banks, which had been frozen due to low cash reserves on hand. The protesters waved signs and banners of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong and petitioned Premier Li Keqiang to intervene on their behalf. In response, plainclothes security officers violently broke up the protest and are currently monitoring demonstrators at their homes and workplaces. Others that participated in the demonstration saw their digital health codes, which are needed to travel between communities, suddenly change from green to red, barring their movement. Officials have promised to gradually begin repayments on the accounts, beginning with those that have smaller balances. Protesters in China do not take to the streets on a whim, as they are generally aware of the risks of doing so: arrest, harassment and reputational troubles. They do not expect political representation, but for officials to tamper with financial commitments between banks and customers is tantamount to sacrilege. And financial mismanagement by bank branches has been a key driver of nonlabor wildcat protests in recent years. Similar protests have included those by investors in the housing developer Evergrande—who were mostly middle class retirees who lost their savings when the cash-strapped company was unable to fulfill its commitment to build their prepaid homes—and military pensioners seeking payment of their promised retirement benefits. In the wake of real estate market bubbles bursting and the shifting of nonperforming loans from the national level to rural governments, bank runs might become more common in other rural provinces, as well.

****** Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Bali, Indonesia, last week on the sidelines of a gathering of G-20 foreign ministers, marking their first face-to-face talks since October 2021. Blinken and Wang primarily exchanged remarks about China’s relationship with Russia and the costs Beijing would incur if it provided Moscow with material aid for its war in Ukraine. Wang was also quoted as saying that the United States suffered from a bout of “Sinophobia,” likely referring to anti-Asian American violence experienced by diaspora communities. The scapegoating of Asian immigrants based on their country of origin is not a new phenomenon in the U.S., and Chinese nationalist commentators such as Hu Xijin of the state-run Global Times and Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian have opportunistically pointed out the United States’ history of racism. However, they largely use instances of historical and present-day abuse to fend off criticism of China. Wang’s first meeting with new Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong in Bali was also of note. In order to bridge rifts in the bilateral relationship, Wang issued four demands of Australia that he said would help the two countries see each other as “partners” instead of “rivals.” In particular, China’s Foreign Ministry took thinly veiled aim at the U.S.-Australia relationship with a demand that China and Australia  “stick to not targeting any third party or being controlled by any third party.” China-Australia bilateral relations suffered during the tenure of Scott Morrison, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s predecessor, when Beijing responded to Canberra’s scrutiny of Chinese telecommunication giant Huawei and calls for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic by slapping punitive trade restrictions on Australian imports.

Rui Zhong is the writer of World Politics Review’s China Note. She works as a program associate at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., where she conducts programming and research on U.S.-China diplomatic and cultural relations. Her writing has appeared in Foreign Policy, WIRED magazine, the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage and the MIT Technology Review. She can be found on Twitter at @rzhongnotes.

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