Home / Textbooks Out of Context: China Uses the Western Media to Court World Public Opinion

Textbooks Out of Context: China Uses the Western Media to Court World Public Opinion

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Confucius says the truth lies somewhere in between. Somewhere between China’s strident calls for correction and Japan’s soft-spoken diplomacy is the truth. In recent weeks, China has vigorously complained about how a textbook glosses over Japanese history, particularly the Rape of Nanking. Political analysts have suggested that the real reason behind Beijing’s stance isn’t really about 20-pages in a little used history book.

Rather, Mainland China wants to remain the power in Asia and by using Western media on such easy issues such as the human rights violations by Japan during World War II, it can gain political oneupsmanship.

The Journal Editorial Report interviewed the editor of The Asian Wall Street Journal editorial page in Hong Kong, Michael Gonzalez, who said:

The people I talk to at Peking University, one of the universities where many of the demonstrators in Beijing came from, tell me that the demonstrations were definitely tolerated and even encouraged. There’s circumstantial evidence which suggests that the level of involvement was beyond just encouragement.

For example, the demonstrators were bused in often and sometimes even in advance of the work units that are so important in the Chinese companies. There is also the very damning evidence of the police standing by and allowing the demonstrators to run riot, pelting the Japanese embassy and the ambassador’s residence with paint and with rocks, shattering windows. I need not add that this is happening in China, where a political demonstration would be quashed within 10 seconds and where a pretty defenseless sect, the Falun Gong, were swept off the street.

This suggests that the Chinese, even if they did not orchestrate it — and they may have — at least encouraged things.

Like Gonzalez, the editorial in The Monitor declared that Taiwan was part of the real reason. Chinese crowds are talking about textbooks, but that may be a surrogate for concerns over the future of Taiwan in the medium term, and anxiety over which country will be the dominant economic power in the region over the longer run.

Western accounts also quickly report another hot topic: reparations for the Korean comfort women. Yet what do most Americans really know about this topic?

The Texts in Question

The 14 April Associated Press report on the Japanese textbooks written by Mari Yamaguchi states that the textbook in question is given away free.

Though given away for free, the book titled “New History Textbook” is used by only 18 of 11,102 junior high schools in Japan, reflecting many teachers’ concerns over its content. It has been denounced by the leading teachers’ union, and is well to the right wing of mainstream public opinion.

The textbook isn’t well-regarded by the majority of teachers and according to Yamaguchi, isn’t even in line with views of the general public. Yet it is held up by other countries as an indication of what Japan as a nation thinks.

Since it was first approved by a government screening panel four years ago, the textbook has been singled out by Japan’s neighbors as evidence the country is trying to whitewash its militarist past.

Only 10 public and eight private junior high schools use the textbook, meaning it reaches just 0.1 percent of the 1.2 million seventh graders.

Calling the Kettle Black

In a New York Times article written on 6 December 2004, writer Howard W. French indicated how hard teaching history was in Mainland China. According to French, an examination of several of the most widely used history textbooks here reveal a mishmash of historical details that many Chinese educational experts themselves say are highly selective and often provide a deeply distorted view of the recent past.

French describes one history lesson in Shanghai:

The history teacher maintained a blistering pace, clicking from one frame quickly to the next, during a lecture on China’s relations with the world from 1929 to 1939 in one of this country’s most selective high schools.

There was Hitler, shown on parade, his hand lifted in the Nazi salute. The teacher mimicked the gesture, to brief laughter, announcing the year the dictator came to power, with no pause for a discussion of fascism. Pushing ahead quickly, he said the United States was exploiting Canadian and Latin American resources, while Britain fed off India. Wherever it could, France, which was dismissed in barely a sentence, mostly followed Britain’s example.

Getting to the meat of the lesson, the teacher said Japan decided to pursue its own longtime desire for a continental empire, and attacked China. The presentation lingered on a famous 1937 picture of a Chinese baby sitting in the middle of a Shanghai road amid the Japanese aerial bombing of China. Then, moments later, the teacher announced plainly, “America’s attitude toward the Japanese invasion of China stopped at empty moral criticism.”

French notes that Chinese students do not learn about the 30 million people who died from famine during the Great Leap Forward. Nor do they learn about how Communist troops invaded Tibet or how in 1989 hundreds of demonstrators for democracy were killed in Tiananmen Square.

More recently, The New York Times carried an editorial by Pu Zhiqiang, a Chinese lawyer. Pu wrote (as translated by Prof. Perry Link), “the fundamental nature of these protests is different from that of the demonstrations of 1989, because they so far have had the tacit approval of the authorities. The protesters have incurred essentially zero risk, and suspense over the outcome has also been near zero.”

Yet he also writes, “if we compare the behavior of the Japanese military with that of our own soldiers, there is not much to distinguish China from Japan. This comparison haunts me.” He questions how the Chinese can hold “Japan firmly responsible for 300,000 deaths at Nanjing” when no one really knows how many people starved during the Great Leap Forward (estimated between 20 to 50 million). He asks “Does our confidence with numbers depend on who did the killing?”

He also addresses the issue of the comfort women, writing that comfort women can sue in both Japanese and Chinese courts. The topic of comfort women is also an easy topic raised to rally public support, however, few articles fully explore the issue.

China isn’t the only Asian country having problems with textbook history. The Korea Times reported that:

The ruling and opposition parties on Sunday failed to narrow differences on a bill to form an ad hoc committee to rectify possible wrong accounts of the nation’s modern history from the period of Japanese colonial rule to the present.

In particular:

Cases to come under close investigation of the committee include the atrocities committed during the Korean War (1950-1953), including massacre of civilians.

The ruling Uri Party demanded that cases of human rights abuse during previous authoritarian regimes in the 1970s and 1980s be included.

Confronting the Comfort Woman Issue: Discomforting for the American Military

Forced prostitution and rape as a military tactic has been part of war since written history. Even now, according to The Star Online in a 29 April 2005 article written by Allan Koay, “despite the recognition that rape and sexual assault are war crimes, Human Rights Watch says the perpetrators are seldom hauled up or punished.”

The Japanese forced Japanese, Taiwanese, Korean and women of many other nationalities into sexual slavery. However, in some of these countries, sexual slavery—the selling of daughters or the fooling and forcing of women into prostitution—was nothing new.

Chinese traders regularly bought Japanese girls for prostitution and shipped women to various places, including the United States. Korea has recently come under fire for cooperating with the U.S. Military in maintaining brothels for their troops. A Cleveland Fox television station ran a segment connecting the military with human trafficking.

Further, during the war crime trials for the Japanese, the issue of comfort women was only addressed when it involved Japanese men sexually exploiting European women. This was the US prior to the civil rights and women’s movements, when colored men such as Emmett Tills or the five men accused in the Massie Affair, could be murdered for insulting the honor of a white woman.

The practice of using non-white women had been acceptable prior to World War II and after. British troops in India had maintained brothels as did French troops in Asia. More importantly, the American Occupation army accepted and used Japanese comfort women for a time. The dispersal of the women has been variously attributed to STDs or pressure from American women.

In asking Japan to confront this issue, the US and other Western nations might also be asked to admit to their similar war crimes.

Who Writes History?

The larger question this textbook controversy drudges up is: who writes history?

Although several articles have quoted the organization Hurights Osaka, a human rights organization in Japan, they haven’t mentioned that Japan also has Korean schools that uses textbooks with their own nationalistic version of history or that other Asian countries dispute the historical accuracy or portrayal in textbooks.

Quoting a Japan Times article, the 2003 Textbook for Human Rights reports indicates one Korean high school based in Japan uses a textbooks that states “Imperial Japan pillaged our country and instituted a cruel, repressive colonial regime. This went beyond acquiring food, resources and labor, and developed into a policy of obliterating the Korean people from the face of the earth,” yet the text skips over the 1930s and World War II except where detailing harsh conditions under Japanese war imperialism.

Unlike many media reports, the problems in Asian aren’t just how Japan represents itself and other nations in textbooks. According to the report a Burmese/Myanmarese government issued textbook portrayed Thais as being lazy and servile. Textbooks in Pakistan show India as a “traditional enemy” and a continual menace. The cultural conflict between the Tamils and Muslims in Sri Lanka manifests in negative portrayals of the other.

According to Hurights Osaka, there were four main human rights issues raised from protests against national textbooks:

1. the role of the education system in perpetuating what is perceived to be the dominant character of the country
2. the role of textbooks in maintaining discrimination against certain social groups and people of other countries
3. the need for truthfulness in presenting history in textbooks
4. the use of scientific methods in weeding out myths in history textbooks

Yet the glossing over of history isn’t just a problem in Asia. Earlier this month a 15 April article in BBC News noted that history has become increasingly “sanitized.”

The article quotes Dr. Yasemin Soysal, a sociologist at Essex University as noting that even the raping and pillaging of the Vikings has been softened. “The Vikings are no longer seen as marauders, but as skilful traders enjoying cultural exchanges with far-flung populations.”

Other trends Soysal noted was the de-mythologizing of heroes and heroines and setting individual countries within a broader European context.

Yet more troubling is the recent passing of a French law to stress the positive aspects of French colonization in North Africa. This drew protests from educators, writers and intellectuals.

Like China, the US is also attempting to pressure another country to re-write its historical texts. According to the article, “U.S. Congressmen put forth a strongly worded resolution on April 12, calling on Russia to admit that the Soviet Union had illegally occupied the Baltic states in 1940 until the fall of communism in 1991.”

The US doesn’t escape criticism. How the Crusades and later, Islam and Islamic immigrants are represented are currently issues brought up from people outside and inside of the US. The Council on Islamic Education and the writer for the National Review Online, John J. Miller, the national political reporter are at odds on how Islam should be interpreted into American textbooks.

The writing of textbooks isn’t easy and rarely satisfies everyone. Such is the case with the Japanese textbooks in question and with many other textbooks, including those used in American schools. In the case raised by China, the textbooks aren’t the real issue at all. Yet in retaliation, Mainland China’s textbooks have now come under scrutiny by Japan although American reports have already stated what might be expected from a Communist country. History in Mainland China is easily defined according to a party line and deviation, protest and alternative viewpoints are not allowed.

It would seem that China, in an attempt to keep Japan off of the UN Security Council, is playing wronged victim to a national audience, picking up an alliance with other countries that might have different issues with Japan such as the comfort women. By simplifying the issue, some media reports have helped raise sympathy for China in popular culture, however, in some ways this approach has backfired in high political circles and China has perhaps lost a bid to buy arms from Europe.

The truth, Confucius wrote, is somewhere in between. Journalists should attempt to find that truth by getting both sides of the argument and putting issues within a global context.

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About Murasaki


    I am not surprised by anything China does to gain an advantage. No matter what, they are a totalitarian state, and will act accordingly, especially in manipulating their own people and trying to court world opinion.

  • Nancy

    But the US government does the same thing, as much as they can – they were just caught at it and repremanded by their own agency for using tax funds for political propaganda. If you think the US is purer than the driven snow as far as misrepresentation et al goes, you haven’t been paying attention, as the bumper stickers say. No government is clean on this issue. As someone recently said, the winners/those in power get to re-write the rules and history. This is also nothing new: I’ve read translations of 6500 year old clay tablets demonstrating the same ol’ thing. Most humans – and especially those who become leaders – seem to have an aversion to the truth, especially when it applies to historic records that will represent their doings to future generations. Even very little kids will lie gratuitously, when they have never been trained or needed to do so; and primate studies seem to indicate that this may be a deeper instinct in hominids, not just humans.

  • sydney

    “No matter what, they are a totalitarian state, and will act accordingly, especially in manipulating their own people and trying to court world opinion.”

    — “Mo matter what?” this comment hints as a sort of personal prejudice and anger. It’s as though you don’t want China to improve upon it’s political past. China is moving towards deomcratization, and will continue to do so if it wants to maximise it’s economic potential.

    In any case, I’m not defending the Chineese government. Just thought your comments seemed a little bitter, and that they ignored the shady tactics that the American government uses daily.

  • godoggo

    My understanding is that riots had begun because of government policies that had led to poisoned crops. I think that there is a great deal of anger in China, which has about the most unequal distribution of wealth of any country in the world, also (in what I would guess to be descending order of importance to the citizenry) rampant corruption (like everywhere in the far east), massively destructive public projects, and a brutally authoritarian (no longer totalitarian) government.

    My take is that the government is looking for an external scapegoat for this anger.

    Incidentally, I noticed a picture in the LA Times of Taiwanese protesters marching in Japan, carrying signs with the following written in Chinese: “It is China that fabricates history” and (under a picture of Lee Teng Hui) “Hurray for Japan” (or maybe “Japan, cheer up”; it can be translated either way).

  • godoggo

    I forgot that I should have added something about the protesters being inspired by the elections in Iraq, in order to stay consistent with the political discourse typical of this site — not in this particular post though – a lapse which I’m sure the poster will correct next time around ;>)

  • godoggo

    I realize this in an old post, but I was just discussing this topic today with a man from Taiwan, after which I went home, googled this up, and emailed it to him. I also reread it, and, I must say, I think it’s a very good post. However, I was wondering it there is a link, or at least a more specific cite, available for the “editorial in The Monitor” or “The 14 April Associated Press report on the Japanese textbooks written by Mari Yamaguchi” (googling the latter brought up this earlier post by the Purple Tigress.

    By the way, being very interested in this issue (in case it isn’t obvious), I was curious about the take on this issue by the Epoch Times, a fiercely anti-communist newspaper (sponsored, I’m told by the Falun Gong) which in my neighborhood is available in English at Borders and in Chinese (with more China-centered content) at the HK Supermarket. So I googled it, too, and here it is.

  • godoggo

    And from the other post, I noticed Aaman’s link to a NY Times article and graphic showing that the textbook is “now used by 52 percent of all junior high schools.”

    Belated thanks to Aaman for that.

  • godoggo

    Make that a textbook. It seems to be a different one.

    Sorry about all the comments on this old post. As I said, this still interests me, plus I had emailed this to somebody.

  • The article that I quoted is available at AP’s Web site. It will cost you money to view. With a little thought, you could have found it yourself.

    You might note that the articles (the AP story I quoted and most of the other articles as well as the article you reference at NYTimes) were written about the same time for about the same reason.

    The NYTimes article brings up many of the points that I have sought to show: Japan isn’t different from Communist China or South Korea in how they write or re-write and/or gloss over history to please the people in power. Obviously this isn’t about a Japan problem or a problem with democracy (since it occurs also in a communist country). Nor is it, as I have indicated, a problem that is intrinsic to Asia.

    Knowing this, puts the problem into perspective.