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Face Time

By Christopher Lingle - June 18, 2004 12:00 AM

Most Americans were genuinely puzzled over the refusal by China's leaders to acknowledge or accept repeated apologies and explanations offered after the accidental and tragic bombing of their embassy in Belgrade by US warplanes acting under NATO orders. A similar confusion arose from an unfortunate accident between an American military surveillance aircraft with a Chinese fighter jet.

In searching for insights into the Chinese reactions, it might be helpful to examine the Chinese position on Japan's statements concerning their conduct as a colonial power during WWII. Much can be learned from considering cultural and political aspects of the similarities and differences of these events.

It is true that recent Japanese leadership has been cagey about owning up to the sins of their predecessors. Until recently, Japan's leaders refused to acknowledge that their acts against their neighbors during World War II were criminal. (By contrast, German leaders acknowledged their war crimes, apologized for them, and paid compensation to victims. Their contrition is well documented in their own history textbooks.)

Instead, Japan's leaders have merely pointed out that there were misunderstandings, bad judgments and mistakes while offering apologies for suffering they might have ensued. And Japanese history textbooks do not portray their encroachment into China as an invasion. Similar interpretations were offered to explain their actions in other Asian countries, including assisting their neighbors in throwing out European colonialists.

Since Japanese leaders have tended to portray the Manchurian campaign and actions in China as part of a wider global problem rather than a banal and evil act as the Chinese insist, it appears they view they owe China a different kind of "apology".

To make matters worse, from time to time, senior level officials have issued denials of Japanese crimes. And most leaders continue to make controversial visits to Yasukuni war memorial in Tokyo.

For their part, the Chinese have demanded a "visible sign" of Japan's contrition before restoring full and normal relations with Tokyo. Prime Minister Koizumi recently ended the reluctance of Japanese leaders to display true remorse for wartime brutality by offering a "heartfelt apology" for Japan's colonial past. He followed up his remarks by laying a wreath at a site in Beijing that memorialized wartime atrocities against the Chinese. Now the Chinese must reciprocate to bolster bilateral relations.

From a cultural perspective, the issue of "face" is crucial from both the Chinese and Japanese sides. Any form of public apology is an extremely serious matter. As it is, Beijing has not apologized to the Chinese people for their suffering under the Great Leap Forward or the evil set loose by the Cultural Revolution or the Tiananmen massacre.

In all events, it appears when confronted with the choice of submitting an apology for wrongdoing and offering restitution, most East Asians tend to opt for the latter. In this case, the Japanese might see their contributions to China's recent economic development combined with greater conciliatory interactions as sufficient acts of meritorious services to atone for their sins.

Politically, there are constraints of domestic politics in Japan and China that lead to their respective position. Much of the posturing reflects a political performance for domestic consumption and a manipulation of relationships with other national politicians rather than calculated moves in bilateral relationships. This is true in China's handling of Japan's war past as well as the reaction of various Chinese politicians to the bombing of their embassy in Belgrade.

Apparently, the form of apology is important. An open and public apology from Japanese leaders to all the Chinese people would help. Another healing step would be for the Japanese to pay compensation to those forced to act as sex slaves for Japanese troops, known by the unfortunate sobriquet, comfort women.

Chinese nationalism is being served by constructing an image of a national affront, to portray China and its people as innocent victims. In turn, the regime in Beijing gains credibility by being a protector from an exaggerated threat.

Responses to apologies are complicated by China's view that Japan is the most threatening regional foe now and in the future will continue to complicate matters. Similarly, the US presence and influence in Asia is resented since it limited China's choices in dealing with Taiwan and its conflicting claims over the Paracels and Spratley islands with many Southeast Asian neighbors.

The complex mixture of political opportunism and cultural input make a clear reading of the Chinese position on the American and Japanese apologies very difficult. The Chinese should learn that demands for sincere apologies require that they behave with greater sincerity in seeking and accepting them.

Christopher Lingle is Professor of Economics at Universidad Francisco MarroquĂ­n in Guatemala and Global Strategist for


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