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Last Updated: Saturday, 23 April, 2005, 12:06 GMT 13:06 UK
China suffers memory lapses too

By Rupert Wingfield-Hayes
BBC correspondent, Beijing

The past month has seen an eruption of anti-Japanese protests in several Chinese cities. The protesters were angry at Japan's approval of a nationalist textbook which they accuse of glossing over atrocities during the years when Japan occupied China. However Rupert Wingfield-Hayes says the Chinese also have a habit of forgetting awkward moments in their own history.

Demonstrator in Beijing
Anti-Japanese protests have taken place in several Chinese cities

Now I have to admit to being somewhat biased on this issue.

You see my wife is Japanese, hence my children are half Japanese; they have Japanese passports.

So when I hear people shouting, "I hate the Japanese," or "Japanese pigs must die," it tends to put my back up.

And these are some of the things I've heard being shouted by the protesters who've taken to the streets of China's biggest cities over the past few weeks.

True, many have not.

Many have been expressing their sincere effrontery at Japan's continued ducking of history. I've read enough Chinese history to understand how they feel.

Most infamous is what's known here as the Rape of Nanjing. In 1937 in the old Chinese capital Nanjing, invading Japanese troops butchered tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Chinese civilians in a month-long orgy of slaughter.

Thousands more young Chinese women were later forced into sexual slavery as what the Japanese army euphemistically called "comfort women". History like this is difficult to forgive or to forget.


But as I watched the stream of young people marching down the streets shouting their anti-Japanese slogans, I couldn't help feeling this wasn't about history, it was something much more visceral.

Young Chinese are taught about the atrocities committed by the Japanese during World War II. They are not however taught about the 17 official apologies that Japan has made to China over the last 30 years
Much of the rhetoric was overtly hateful, even racist.

"Japanese dwarfs," one banner read, "Japanese devils," another.

The crowd turned its rage on anything Japanese they could lay their hands on.

Restaurants with Japanese signs had their windows smashed. A Honda car was set upon, its windows shattered and doors kicked in.

The fact that the car was made in China, and the woman driving it Chinese, didn't seem to matter.

Where's all this rage coming from?

To try to find out I went to visit one of the organisers of this new anti-Japanese movement.

Lu Yunfei is a 25-year-old computer engineer. I found him tapping away on his computer keyboard in his modest flat in one of the new high rise developments on the edge of Beijing. With a warm smile he invited me in and proffered a cup of hot Chinese tea.


Lu is typical of the new generation of young, urban Chinese. He has a good job, good income, and more personal freedom than any previous generation.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi
The Japanese prime minister has apologised for his country's wartime record in Asia
He is too young to remember the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution. Instead his experience is of the boom times of the 1990s. He is grateful to the Communist Party, and deeply patriotic.

If there is one thing that gets Lu going, it's Japan. From his flat he runs a website called the Chinese Patriotic Alliance.

His latest campaign is a petition to stop Japan getting a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. So far Lu claims to have got more than 20 million signatures.

"Japan has never faced up to its wartime history," he tells me.

"This is something we Chinese cannot accept. Japan should not be allowed on the UN Security Council. That would be like allowing a criminal to join the police."

This is all fairly standard stuff, but next came this:

"Japan," he told me confidently, "is determined to keep China down."

"Militarism is on the rise again. The right wing is changing Japan's constitution so that it can attack its neighbours again."


When I asked my wife what she thought about this she laughed.

"That's crazy," she said, "yes, they are right-wing groups in Japan, that's true, but the vast majority of Japanese only want peaceful relations with China."

Unlike Japan, in China the government really does control history
Mr Lu's view of Japan is informed by the Chinese Communist Party's own heavy brand of propaganda.

Young Chinese are taught about the atrocities committed by the Japanese during World War II. They are not however taught about the 17 official apologies that Japan has made to China over the last 30 years, including one from the Japanese emperor when he visited Beijing.

Nor are they told of the $30bn in aid that Japan has given to China since ties were re-established in 1972, aid that has helped build Beijing's international airport and the city's new subway system. You'll search in vain for a plaque on either acknowledging where the money came from.

Unlike Japan, in China the government really does control history.

Erasing history

China's own history has been relentlessly rewritten to erase the episodes the Communist Party would rather forget. Ask any young Chinese about Mao's disastrous "great leap forward" campaign in which more than 20 million people starved to death, and you will get a blank stare.

Ask about China's unprovoked invasion of Vietnam in 1979 in which tens of thousands of Vietnamese were killed. Again, nothing.

Last week China's Prime Minister Wen Jiabao declared that:

"Only a country that respects history, and takes responsibility for history, can take greater responsibilities in the international community."

He was talking about Japan, but he could just as well have been talking about China.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 23 April, 2005 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


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