China Picks at the Scab to Keep the Wound Fresh

Why would China want to disturb the peace of the world?  The roots of the coming conflict go back to early last century.

The notion of China’s humiliation at the hands of foreigners is almost one hundred years old.  It was first popularized in 1915 in response to Japan’s Twenty-One Demands on the Chinese state of that year.  From 1927 to 1940, there was an official holiday in Nationalist China called National Humiliation Day.  The notion was largely forgotten after the communists took over China in 1949.  Through the Great Leap Forward (45 million dead) and the Cultural Revolution, individual Chinese were more interested in personal survival than angst over ancient insults.

The rise of a few hundred million of China’s population out of poverty has allowed the self-indulgence of worrying about China’s past to be taken up again.  China’s century of humiliation is taken to start with the First Opium War in in 1839 and end with the communist takeover in 1949.  Of China’s over one thousand museums, at least 150 are dedicated to commemorating the darkest period of China’s century of humiliation: the Japanese invasion from 1931 to 1945.  In Shenyang in northeast China, for example, the September 18 Historical Museum was built in the shape of a bullet-holed desk calendar opened to September 18.  September 18 is the date in 1931 that the Japanese army, which had been occupying parts of Manchuria since the first Sino-Japanese War, launched a surprise attack on Shenyang and began its full-scale invasion of China.  That day is now celebrated as National Humiliation Day.

The current Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, is the first of the “heirs” to take power.  As the son of a communist general who fought the Japanese and the Nationalists, he is a princeling, a member of the new hereditary aristocracy.  A passage from an essay by the Australian defense analyst Paul Monk is very telling on the subject of what President Xi intends for Asia’s near future:

In any case, Xi Jinping, despite his genial smile, good English, and familiarity with the United States, is no reforming liberal.  Shortly after assuming the presidency, he took all the members of his politburo with him to the bizarre museum the Party has built in Tiananmen Square – the museum of national humiliation and revival.  He pointed out to them the exhibits showing the arrival of the Jesuits via Macao in the sixteenth century and how this had been the beginning of the infiltration and humiliation of China by the West.  He pointed out the exhibits showing the Japanese invasions of China and making the unfounded assertion that the Japanese were defeated by the Communist Party with a little help from “good” Nationalist generals.  The Americans, he said, then became the enemy.  “Against this external enemy,” he told China’s inner group of top leaders, “we must stick together.”

To erase the shame of its century of national humiliation, China will need to have an unequivocal victory over somebody.  Recent internal propaganda has focussed on the Nanking Massacre, a six-week period, starting 13 December 1937, in which Japan captured Nanking and killed 300,000 people, mostly civilians.  This suggests that the focus of the coming attack will be Japan.

Not that the Philippines has been forgotten.  In mid-2013, China’s state media warned that a counterstrike against the Philippines is inevitable if it continues to provoke China in the South China Sea.  The notion that a country like the Philippines could be provoking anyone is peculiar, but then the Chinese have a peculiar, and decidedly unfriendly, way of viewing the world.  The Chinese view the world in terms of “comprehensive national power,” which they see as the power to compel.  They give each country a score based on the size of its economy, its military might, and its social cohesion. 

No matter what happens in the Senkaku and Yaeyama Islands over the next couple of years, Asia is headed for generations of enmity.  If China doesn’t win, the loss of face will make the Chinese yet more upset.  If they do win, their demands on their other neighbors will become yet more unreasonable.  No happy ending is possible.

David Archibald, a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C., is the author of Twilight of Abundance: Why Life in the 21st Century Will Be Nasty, Brutish, and Short (Regnery, 2014).