Is Hong Kong trying to shut up Mao on Japan’s invasion?

May 19, 2020 08:33
Photo: Reuters

Was Japan’s invasion of China 80-some years ago a good thing? Sounds like a silly question to ask and yet it was posed in the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education examination last week, sparking a huge controversy, including reprimands from Beijing, which in turn spurred Hong Kong’s secretary for education to announce the cancellation of the question, already answered by 5,200 history students.

The question itself asked if students agreed that Japan brought more good than harm to China between 1900 and 1945. They were asked to cite two sources. One was a 1905 article by Ume Kenjiro, a legal scholar and founder of Hosei University, who stressed the importance for Chinese reformers to learn law and politics. The second consisted of excerpts from revolutionary leader Huang Xing’s letter to a Japanese politician, Inoue Kaoru, seeking financial help, and a 1912 contract detailing support by Japanese conglomerate Mitsui for the Republic of China.

China’s state agency Xinhua called the question “poisonous.” The nationalistic Global Times said it would turn students into “traitors” and the Chinese foreign ministry warned against the Hong Kong education sector becoming chaotic like “a chicken coop without a roof.”

The secretary for education, Kevin Yeung, sounding very much like a mainland official, said the question had “seriously hurt the feelings and dignity of the Chinese people” and “Japan only did harm but no good.” There was, the secretary said, “no room for discussion.” That question, he said, would not be marked.

Not so fast. Aren’t Xinhua, the Foreign Ministry, Global Times and the secretary for education aware of what Chairman Mao Zedong had to say about Japan’s invasion of China? Surely, there is room for discussion for Mao, if not for anyone else.

In 1972, when Premier Kakuei Tanaka flew to Beijing to normalize relations between Japan and China, he held talks with Mao and with Premier Zhou Enlai.

When the Japanese leader apologized for the invasion, Mao stopped him and said: “We must express our gratitude to Japan. If Japan had not invaded China, we could have never achieved the cooperation between the Kuomintang and the Communist Party. We could have never developed and eventually taken political power for ourselves. It is due to Japan’s help that we are able to meet here in Beijing.”

That is to say, the Communist Party won power in 1949 and is in control in 2020 because of Japan’s military intervention.

The party’s mortal enemy, Chiang Kai-shek, was determined in the mid-1930s to eliminate the communists but then, because of the Japanese military advance, he reversed his priorities and put war with Japan ahead of the extermination of the communists who, at the time, were struggling to survive in northwestern China. Although the communists and the Kuomintang government both agreed to fight Japan, it was Chiang’s troops who bore the brunt of the fighting and took the vast majority of the casualties.

While the KMT was busy fighting the Japanese, the communists were able to expand the territory they controlled and increased their numbers so, when civil war broke out after Japan’s surrender, Mao’s communist troops were able to defeat Chiang’s forces.

So Mao wasn’t joking, though no doubt he was being sarcastic when he thanked Tanaka for Japan’s invasion. But, without the invasion, the People’s Republic of China would not exist. Would that be a good thing or a bad thing?

When the two countries established diplomatic relations in September 1972, Mao waived any claim to war reparations. But Japan in subsequent decades provided substantial sums in economic aid to China, which was not publicly acknowledged until Wen Jiabao’s visit to Tokyo in 2007.

The history question posed was clearly designed to test the students. They certainly knew about Japan’s invasion of China and they had also been taught in class about attempted reforms in the early 20th century when Japan played a role. They were being asked, in effect, to discuss Japan’s role during these two different eras and to bring their knowledge to bear, citing both the materials provided and what they already knew.

Poisonous? Traitorous? Hurt the feelings of the Chinese people? Ask Chairman Mao.

Better yet, ask the students who took the test. According to some who have discussed this history paper, they had applied critical thinking to the topic and argued their position. Clearly, they had not dismissed everything they knew about the Japanese invasion just because they had been presented with certain facts that had occurred in earlier decades. They had shown intellectual maturity, which the secretary for education so far hasn’t displayed.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.