The following is a guest post by Mark Connor.
Frequent readers of this website will already know of the bullhorn Chinese nationalism barked by many in the Chinese media. Recent tweeter Hu Xijin of the Global Times is one; so is Eric Li. But though these roaring ideologues are not much different to North Korean leaders in full battle cry, their writings are not exactly the most relaxing way by which to sample Chinese patriotic opinion on political matters.
So if you would like to enjoy your flask of tea while browsing a more restrained and nuanced practitioner of Chinese nationalism, consider the articles of Yiyi Lu, a sometime contributor to WSJ’s China Real Time Report. On occasion she will voice concerns about this or that policy in China, or the tone of Chinese diplomatic language, but in general she hews closely to what we might think of as the CCCP’s ‘core’ values: Tibet, Taiwan, strong government, and so on. One such ‘value’ is that Japan is a remorseless enemy who committed outrageous atrocities in WW2 but about which neither the Japanese populace nor the world at large has as much knowledge as many Chinese think we should.
A recent article of hers – concerning western media’s unfairly (to her mind) harsh appraisal of Flowers of War, the gory Chinese war epic focusing on the Rape of Nanking – is a case in point. About the harsh appraisal, she isn’t wrong. The WSJ’s own China Real Time Report memorably claimed the Japanese in that movie were all shown as “monochrome monsters” (see Lu’s article). But to Lu’s thinking, this brought to light a double standard in the western media, and this was that (in her words),
[n]umerous Holocaust movies have been made that portray Nazis as evil incarnate, but one does not see western media describing them as anti-German propaganda that “lacks subtlety.”
Lu of course does have half a point. Japan did commit war crimes for which it has not apologized or made reparations with nearly the art or humility that Germany has. The right cultural pressure could – hopefully – lead to better acknowledgement of these, and might even bring about compensation payments.
Whitewashing history in Japan’s school textbooks
But before we look at her analogy and consider its suitability, let us look first at another of Lu’s examples of western media bias in her article, this time regarding Japan’s school textbooks. As you probably already know, several of these textbooks omit or soft-pedal many of Japan’s atrocities in WW2, the Nanjing Massacre being the most famous. Lu however has noticed that whenever western media write about China’s criticisms of these books, somewhere in the article there is frequently a mention of China’s own omissions and soft-pedalings of wrongdoings committed against its own people. She thinks this is like saying,
when discussing Nazi Germany’s treatment of Jews…: “Yes, the Jewish people suffered a great deal during World War II, but Israel has also occupied Palestinian territories and killed innocent Palestinian civilians.”
But this analogy of hers plainly does not work. The reason is that there are two victims – Jews and Palestinians – while in the textbook debate there is only one. The Japanese insulted their Chinese victims by erasing the record; the Chinese government did the exact same thing, and the victims were once again the Chinese.
Lu therefore needs a better analogy – here are two. First, imagine if Saddam Hussein had criticized Turkey’s treatment of the Kurds? As Hussein himself had famously gassed them, the media would have been right to mention this detail in any article on Hussein’s denouncing of Turkey’s actions. Or again, what about when the USSR put in its textbooks harsh words on the earlier Tsarist regime’s mistreatment of the masses, when in fact many punishments in the Soviet Union were much more strict and cruel than those of the predecessor’s? Pointing out clear hypocrisy of this kind is a surely a basic function of the media.
So coming back to China, the real issue does not seem to be who lies about what bad things were done to the Chinese in their textbooks. No, the picture that presents itself is of China needing Japan as an enemy and being prepared to lie to do so. There is little else we can conclude.
Why do countries have or need enemies? Of course the enemies do bad things – this is not in question. But so often are these evil acts of the enemy chanted as mantras of hate by the victims that they come to seem more as deflections of this anger away from one’s own problems, and then on to an outsider, in this case Japan. (Keep in mind that all countries do this, but some are much worse than others.) And from this we could then ask, might not films demonizing a foreign country be performing much the same function?
Flowers of War and the Nazis
At one point in her article, Lu also claims that Flowers of War’s private financing is relevant as this shows it is not the voice of the government, even though just about any other kind of movie on the Nanjing Massacre could not have been made in China’s heavily censored movie industry. This is almost like saying that the man in the straightjacket just so happens to be most comfortable crossing his arms over his body like that.
Her main point, however, as quoted above, is that western critics have given Hollywood’s portrayal of Nazis an easy ride while having shown zero tolerance to how Flowers of Warrepresents the Japanese. It is a little strange that she does not name any of these Nazi-vilifying films, so I have come up with a list myself. Tens, maybe hundreds, have been left out, but most people will probably agree the below are several of the more well-known. (There are others here, too).
Casablanca: Nazis don’t commit atrocities and behave much like a strict, enemy, occupying army. It was also made during WW2, not sixty years later.
Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Nazis are clear monsters. But note that they get their faces melted off by God at the end, making the effect more kitsch than cruel. Accuracy and realism are not hanging out with the plot in this blockbuster. Also, the bad guys are generally Nazis, not Germans. They have a logo to indicate them which the Germans, though sometimes evil, do not.
Schindler’s List: Nazis are bad but some Germans are good.
Saving Private Ryan: Nazis are no more than enemy soldiers. Inhuman acts are committed by both sides.
The Pianist: One of the heroes is a Nazi.
Of the five, Indiana Jones’ Nazis are the only true “monochrome monsters” – the Japanese in Flowers of War are comparable to these Nazis alone. And notice that of the other four movies –Oscar winners all – three have nuanced portrayals of Germans, and, sometimes, Nazis too.
But somehow it is not the lack of recent movies with monster Nazis that seems most to trouble Lu’s point. What no doubt really bothered western critics about Flowers was its pretence to high art. It was submitted as China’s hopeful Oscar nomination, after all. Critics duly applied higher standards.
Japan probably needs to have more pressure applied to it so that it faces up to and admits its part in WW2 atrocities. Unfortunately China is too flawed and unsubtle a cultural voice to effectively do this. No wonder the latest effort drew so much skepticism and even scorn in the west.