How would you answer that history exam question?

May 20, 2020 10:58
Photo: RTHK

It is probably but another sign of the highly politically charged atmosphere in our city.

For how could a mere question in the Diploma for Secondary Education examination paper -- supposedly designed to test the students’ knowledge of history and critical thinking ability -- trigger so much anger and controversy?

In the exam, the students were asked to read two texts and told to answer the question of whether Japan “did more good than harm to China” during the first half of the past century, which of course covered the period when the former invaded the latter.

Not only the Hong Kong SAR government and pro-establishment groups but also the mainland’s foreign ministry and state-owned media have condemned the exam question, and demanded that it be removed.

Education Secretary Kevin Yeung Yun-hung said the question would have led students to give an answer that would have “seriously hurt the feelings and dignity of the Chinese people who suffered great pain during the Japanese invasion of China”.

The official news agency Xinhua said the “rage of Chinese sons and daughters would not be able to be settled” unless the offending exam question was pulled.

The pan-democratic camp, on the other hand, accused Beijing of interfering once again in Hong Kong affairs and undermining the city’s autonomy.

And so it’s back to the raging “one country, two systems” issue, which has sparked the protest movement.

The other day I met up with a former schoolmate, who has had 30 years of experience as history teacher under his belt.

Over cups of coffee and snacks at a cozy shop in Mong Kok, we talked about the controversy over the history exam question and, probably inevitably, I found myself trying to remember what I could still recall from our history textbook 30 years after leaving high school.

We tried to answer the question of whether Japan did more good than harm to China between 1900 and 1945.

Teacher: Let’s start with the late Qing period. Of course, there are so many demerits (harm). Japan invaded China from the end of the 19th century. In the early 20th century, Japan’s ambition was clearly seen during the Boxer Rebellion.

Me: Yes, during the Eight-Power Expedition, Japan sent the largest army to China, and asked the largest amount of indemnity under the Boxer Protocol.

Teacher: Good point. What else?

Me: Japan also fought the Russians on China’s territory during the Russo-Japanese War. She gained control of southern Manchuria after the war.

Teacher: See, there are so many demerits. No ground for discussion.

Me: Wait. Lots of students were sent to Japan to obtain western education, and Japan inspired the Qing government to reform. The first constitution and the first election law were introduced under the Japanese model. Also, among the students studying in Japan, many joined the revolutionaries and they played an important role in overthrowing the corrupt Qing dynasty. Some like Lu Xun, father of China’s modern literature, even inspired the Communists.

Teacher: There are also many demerits. Japan furthered her ambitions through the 21 Demands to Yuan Shikai (the first official president of the Republic of China) and the Manchurian Crisis. Japan was also one of the foreign powers that supported the warlords, and this kept China divided and plunged it into devastating civil wars.

Me: But please be reminded that the murder of (warlord) Zhang Zuolin in Manchuria led to the reunification of China as Zhang’s son, Zhang Xueliang, swore allegiance to the Republican government.

Teacher: This is a demerit for the Communists as Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek) was able to focus on fighting the Communists and nearly wiped them out.

Me: But the Japanese invasion prompted the Nationalists to forge a coalition with the Communists -- although it was forced by Zhang Xueliang -- thus unifying China against Japan during the Second Sino-Japanese War.

Teacher: Such a statement would hurt the feelings of the Chinese people, who suffered enormously in the hands of the Japanese invaders. The Japanese caused so much death and destruction. These are all demerits, no merits at all, for sure.

Me: But this also united the Chinese against Japan. Also, the Nationalist army became preoccupied with fighting the Japanese, and this bought time for the Communists to escape the Nationalist extermination campaign and to expand. This enabled them to seize power later on. If there were no Japanese invasion, the Communists could have taken a much longer time to defeat the Nationalists.

Teacher: So you are saying that the Communist government should now thank the Japanese for giving them the chance to seize power?

Me: Bingo!

Teacher: I was being sarcastic…

Me: But there are passages that quote sources saying that Mao Zedong, the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, thanked the Japanese for helping them to secure power. Not just once, but several times. And he referred in particular to the Japanese militarists who started the invasion.

Teacher: No, that can’t be true. So many people lost their lives and everything. You would really hurt the feelings of the Chinese if you insist on giving credit to the Japanese invasion.

Me: Come on, this is an academic discussion. I would be the last person to want to hurt their feelings. I thought we were just trying to answer the exam question...

Another thing, why didn’t the Chinese government demand compensation from the Japanese government? The Japanese government didn’t have to give compensation for the comfort women, the wartime workers, the people who converted their money to military notes, and the millions of people who suffered from the invasion. Would that not hurt their feelings?

Teacher: But you cannot deny the fact that many people died during the invasion.

Me: Of course. But then again, how about during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution? More people died during those historical episodes, although the government has not highlighted the grim aspects of those movements. Would that not hurt the feelings of the Chinese people?

Teacher: Well, you certainly would not want to write those things on the exam paper.

Me: Would you give me an A?

Teacher: Ha! Dream on… After all, it’s a history exam question. What’s important is how you present your argument. And in the final analysis, everything depends on who will read your exam papers and give you the grade.

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EJ Insight writer