In the turbulent 2010s, a perspective from East Asian history that might have been useful was about the fragility of democracy. The story of post-war Europe, as told in most histories, has become one of inevitable democratization. In some ways this was a story read backward; the long debate about whether Germany’s Sonderweg (‘special path’) was responsible for its descent into dictatorship was fuelled in part by the idea that Germany’s lack of democratic commitment before 1945 was in some way anomalous in the European context. The story of Eastern Europe after 1989 also fitted neatly into this model, along with the intellectual framing of Francis Fukuyama and others who argued that liberal democracy was the ultimate norm in politics. India’s history became relatively more familiar than that of other Asian countries, in part because so much of that story took place in English, and was easily accessible.
However, this concentration on India concealed an anomaly in understanding Asia as a whole: in the post-war era, India has been the only consistent democracy in the region apart from Japan (and for two years in 1975–7, even that democracy was suspended under Emergency legislation). This made the Indian experience seem in some way familiar, a democratic offshoot of the favorable parts of the European legacy (liberalism), while politely ignoring the less palatable parts (colonial domination).
The case of Nazi Germany, the European descent into dictatorship most studied in Western schools, is in some ways so egregious, ending with racial genocide, that it serves to illustrate little beyond its own case (even the most abstruse arguments about European fascism do not equate the Italian or Austrian Dollfuss versions with Hitlerism).
Japan’s pre-1945 path, somewhat like that of Germany, involved imperialism and dictatorship that created a form of modernization, but at a terrible price. Like Germany, Japan’s post-war reconstruction was in stark contrast to what had gone before, as the country became a global citizen contributing to a peaceful and democratic world. China’s traumas on the path to modernization were greater even than Japan’s. Up to the mid-twentieth century, China was a country as much a victim of global forces as it was a shaper of them. Yet in the early twentieth century, its republican, pre-communist governments still sought to create a modern state. After a world war and a civil war, in the mid-twentieth century, China modernized further, not under a pluralist democracy like Japan, but under a radical experiment in communism that challenged the Soviet Union as much as it did the United States. That modernization has been underpinned by a range of themes that speak to wider themes in modern history: the impact of war, the power of globalization, and the legacy of colonialism.
War and the shaping of Japan
The Second World War, three-quarters of a century after it ended, still remains central to the way that the West defines itself. This is also true for many other societies; Russia recently made it illegal to insult the memory of the ‘Great Patriotic War’. The dominant narratives about the ‘meaning’ of the war in Europe share certain characteristics: what can be called a ‘circuit of memory’, meaning a shared set of ideas and assumptions that define the perceived meaning of a historical event. For most of Western Europe and North America, there has been a circuit of memory since 1945 that projects the war as a conflict against fascism, concentrated in Europe and with the Nazis at the center, which ultimately led to the defeat of evil and the establishment of stable democracy in the West. Historical detail differs, but in Washington, Paris, London, or Berlin, few would deny the key elements of that framework; the defeated Germans shared it just as much as the victorious Americans.
Yet a Western understanding of the Second World War, perhaps the historical framework most widely understood and engaged within the West today (at least judging by television documentaries, popular histories, and school curricula), needs to incorporate the very different frameworks and assumptions surrounding that same conflict in East Asia, not least because those historical assumptions continue to shape the two most powerful Asian states, China and Japan.
Unlike in Europe, a shared circuit of memory around the Second World War in Asia, with mutually understood assumptions and narratives, never developed in East Asia, largely because of the Cold War and the Chinese Civil War. In the short years after the end of the war with Japan in 1945, the Nationalist (Kuomintang) government of Chiang Kai-shek made tentative moves to create a new friendship with post-war Japan, on the basis that China would be a key shaper of a new order in Asia. In this scenario, post-war China and Japan would have both been oriented toward the US. As in France and Germany in the same era, this context might have provided the opportunity for two former enemies to form a shared understanding of their past trauma. Also as in Europe, wider support from the US could have meant that both Asian powers were able to create a favorable atmosphere for a shared circuit of memory.
Instead, the Chinese Civil War of 1946–9 took China decisively out of the fledgling pro-American order forming in East Asia. Because of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) victory, China allied instead with the USSR. The Korean War followed shortly afterward and caused a further rift that meant that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the US remained isolated from each other diplomatically until 1978.
Japan remained under US occupation from 1945 to 1952, with little contact with China after 1949. This political separation of the two major Second World War belligerents in Asia led to a clear divergence in their circuits of memory. In Japan, the legacy of the war in Asia shaped historiography inexorably in the decades that followed. In China, the desire to burnish the revolution of 1949 became the dominant historical narrative, but the story of the war against Japan disappeared and reappeared over time in the public consciousness, becoming (ironically) much more important in the years since the 1980s, rather than in the immediate post-war decades.
In Japan, modernization became a key theme of the post-war settlement. The dominant political narrative implied that Japan was an almost purely economic actor, which had essentially started from zero in 1945 and was now making immense strides as its GDP grew. The historical narrative changed to reflect this: the Meiji Restoration of the 1880s, when Japan’s first modernization began, became the starting point of the story, and the turn to dictatorship in the 1930s became characterized as a kurai tanima (‘dark valley’) that was, overall, an anomaly in the rise of Japan to economic dominance (the second-biggest economy in the world by the 1980s).
Yet in practice, this bland, economistic story of modernization with hiccups inevitably became intertwined with the unresolved trauma of the war and the end of the Japanese Empire. Unlike France and Britain, which saw their empires unwind over two decades after 1945, Japan’s period as a colonizer came to a sudden end in August 1945 as its ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’ crashed into ruins. Japanese historians would spend the next few decades debating the causes of the disastrous war, with historians on the left, such as Ienaga Saburo, spending much of that time battling the conservative government with demands that Japan does more to face up to its war guilt (for instance, in the way that the war was described in school textbooks). Yet a caricature sometimes heard from outside – that Japan simply refused point-blank to acknowledge its war guilt – was never simplistically true; for instance, one of the most appalling war crimes, the Nanjing Massacre (‘Rape of Nanking’) of 1937–8, was actually forced into public attention by Japanese journalists such as Honda Katsuichi in the 1970s. In contrast, it was a decade or more before the subject was openly discussed in China: prior to the 1980s, the Beijing government had felt that excessive attention to Japanese war crimes would not help in the task of re-establishing diplomatic relations with Japan (which finally happened in 1972).
Even now, in the 2010s and 2020s, the legacy of the devastating war in Asia has continued to shape Japanese politics, education, and culture. Films about the wartime years are still popular, but they tend to hew to very particular sorts of interpretation. Notably, very few such films deal with the China war that broke out in 1937; the ‘real’ war, it is implied, only seems to begin at Pearl Harbor in 1941, when the US, a Western enemy, joined the conflict. Much of the popular culture in Japan surrounding the war deals with experience on the home front, rather than the invasion by Japan of other countries. The hit manga movie by Sunao Katabuchi, In this Corner of the World (2016), is a story of great power about a young woman who enters married life during the war years in a small village near Hiroshima (giving a clue to the eventual plot outcome). The story is a moving one and shows the real suffering of the Japanese population in the final years of the war, but it stands as an example of a wide range of films in which the Japanese army in China, South East Asia, or in other places invaded by Japan do not figure in any very explicit onscreen discussion.
Contemporary Japan faces a thorny series of difficulties, most of which are disturbingly similar to (the by us earlier described) Japan’s late-nineteenth-century concerns. What Japan cares about are in two regions the Western Hemisphere and Southeast Asia, with only one itty-bitty problem: Japans dealing with China.
China and war
In the Mao era, China’s historians were heavily constrained as to what they could write about. It is worthwhile if limited work was done in the first decade of Mao’s rule, mostly seeking cherry-picked history to underpin the narrative of an inexorable rise to power by the CCP. Then, the Cultural Revolution (1966–76) made it impossible for any intellectuals, including historians, to carry out any kind of meaningful writing. Only with the beginning of the reform era in 1978 did it become possible for historians to widen the scope of their research. One area which became much more widely visible was research on the period of the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression, as the China Theatre of the Second World War has become known. For decades, discussion of the topic was limited to Chinese historical scholarship. This was largely because such a major part of the resistance to the Japanese was undertaken by the Nationalists (Guomindang or Kuomintang) under Chiang Kai-shek, with the Communists playing an important but essentially secondary role. After the Communist victory on the mainland in 1949, it became near-impossible for the CCP to give any sort of positive assessment of the anti-Japanese record of the enemies they had recently defeated in the civil war.
However, from the 1980s, a variety of factors changed the relative invisibility of the history of the war in China. In particular, historians pushed for a more nuanced approach to understanding the positive as well as the negative contributions that the Nationalists had made to defeat the Japanese, and succeeded in doing so with the perhaps surprising assistance of senior figures within the CCP such as the hardline ‘conservative’ former personal secretary to Mao, Hu Qiaomu. There were reasons for the Party’s willingness to widen the angle of interpretation. Pragmatically, the CCP wanted to improve relations with Taiwan and felt that being more complimentary about the Nationalists’ wartime contribution would help that cause. In a wider sense, the 1980s saw China still recovering from the Cultural Revolution. The ideological rubble left behind at the end of those events had soured the population on the idea of class struggle. Leaders sought a more unifying narrative, and the shared struggle of the Chinese against the invaders during the Second World War fitted the bill well. (Wartime collaboration with the enemy, which was extensive, was not mentioned in this version of events.)
Over the past four decades, the narrative of the Second World War as a shaping event in Chinese history has become much more prominent. The analogy can be confrontational. The Chinese government declared that it would launch a ‘people’s war’ against the COVID-19 virus at the start of the pandemic in early 2020; later that year, State Counsellor Yang Jiechi declared that the PRC would have to follow a ‘protracted war’ to create connections in its foreign policy. Both expressions are taken directly from Mao’s writing on fighting the Japanese in the 1930s. Other uses of the period were more cooperative-sounding, including frequent reminders by Chinese leaders and diplomats that China had been the first signatory to the UN Charter in 1945 (at the San Francisco Conference of that year). By making this point, China was arguing that it was ‘present at the creation’ of the 1945 world order and that just as the US has used its status as a maker of the post-war world to make claims in the present era, so China should be entitled to do so as well. The plausibility of this claim can certainly be contested. But to understand it, Westerners need to know something about the place that China’s wartime experience has had in its consciousness of its own recent history (just as one would do for Britain, Poland, Russia, and other countries that still draw from the well of that long-ago conflict). It is widely known that China is one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, and a good number of people are aware that Beijing was only able to regain the China seat at the UN from Taiwan as late as 1971. However, without some awareness of the Chinese contribution to the war, and the significance that President Roosevelt placed on incorporating (Nationalist) China into the post-war global order, it is hard to make sense of the seemingly sudden appearance of China at the very highest levels of international society. In fact, the rise of China to global status is a narrative that has been underway since at least 1945, but via a path much more circuitous than that of, say, the United States.
China’s more remote history has also been put to work in recent years, making claims to bolster a contemporary phenomenon, the increasingly global nature of China’s overseas presence. Among the more extraordinary events of the voyages happened when the sailors were presented with a giraffe, which they brought back to China. The version of this story approved by the CCP tends to be saccharine: a core idea is that China’s expeditions, unlike those of the Western powers in Africa and Asia, were purely about trade and not conquest or violence. The analogy is meant to be obvious: that just as it was the West, not China, that committed major violence in the early modern era, so the world today should be less fearful of China than of the West.
It is, however, true that China did not use its imperial power to establish major overseas possessions as the European empires did (although it was happy to expand its land borders on many occasions). Chinese navigation techniques were sophisticated and extensive long before his voyages and, in the centuries that followed, we know that Chinese and South East Asian societies were engaged in complex trading relationships with each other.
Yet when it comes to global issues, the European imperial presence has shaped the modern era, and that was true also for East and South East Asia. For some states in the region, such as Singapore, the long-standing British connection is still evident in many ways. Singapore still sends many of its elites to Britain’s top universities, when they don’t go to the Ivy League, and the city-state is likely to play a larger role in British engagement with South East Asia in the Brexit era. However, the long history of this outpost, with its complex tale of trade, opium processing, economic exploitation, and (failed) defense is little known in Britain, even in comparison with the story of Indian independence.
Yet China provides an even better example of a long-standing relationship with Britain that has almost no visibility in general histories. Trade is a topic much in the news these days, including the idea that Brexit Britain should trade more with East Asia. This should surely be a cue to find out more about the Imperial Maritime Customs Service, an extraordinary institution that lasted for a century. The Service was an agency staffed by Britons to collect taxes on behalf of the Chinese government. Although it was a product of imperialism, established in the aftermath of the Opium Wars, its first inspector-general, the Ulsterman Sir Robert Hart, always made it clear that he saw himself in the service of the Chinese government, rather than an agent of the British Empire. The institution – one in which China gave up parts of its sovereignty on tariffs to achieve a more effective and lucrative tax regime – has both parallels and profound differences with Britain’s half-century in the EU. There are also British connections to the story of China’s rise. When people write about the cities of the empire, they frequently have Calcutta or Cape Town in mind. It’s far less common for them to think of Shanghai. Yet the city was also one of the major creations of settler colonialism, with its heart in a British-dominated International Settlement for a century from 1843 until Pearl Harbor.
Today, the former Settlement area has an ambiguous relationship with that era. Chinese historiography condemns British imperialism as a violation of sovereignty. Nonetheless, the heritage of the colonial era, in particular the Art Deco buildings that mark the famous Bund, or waterfront, is lovingly preserved and thought of as a cultural treasure in its own right. Yet if the impact of the foreign on Shanghai is regarded as an ambiguous legacy in today’s entirely Chinese Shanghai, it is essentially absent from any Western historical consideration: outside a coterie of specialists, the significance of Shanghai’s British heritage in shaping the modern city is hardly considered in the wider story of empire.
The story of Hong Kong has perhaps been more visible in recent years, because one of the most profoundly important stories of our own era is the erosion of the freedoms of residents of Hong Kong, in particular after the imposition of a draconian National Security Law by Beijing in July 2020. For the historically informed, however, what is intriguing and disturbing is the combination of English common law – the right to habeas corpus and applications for bail, along with barristers in horsehair wigs – with Chinese Communist authoritarianism in the way that the authorities in the city have cracked down on its democrats. Of course, this combination is not unique to Hong Kong: Singapore, Kenya, and South Africa have historically been three states which combined the practice of English common law with highly repressive domestic politics. But Hong Kong’s case is unique in terms of the direct clash and combination of two systems with profoundly different historical roots at the same time. Understanding how the city came to be in such a position in the 2020s can only come with an understanding of its unique history.
We use the term ‘freedom’ rather than just ‘democracy’ because, while the destruction of democratic norms in Hong Kong by its own rulers in 2020 is important, it is the product of a relatively short period of democracy in the colony. India was given elements of self-government from the early twentieth century onward. Hong Kong’s first moves toward a very limited democracy took place only in 1952, although they were accelerated in later years. The Hong Kong of the 1960s and 1970s still suffered from major police corruption. The British period, in other words, was not one of unalloyed progress. However, many of the elements that made Hong Kong distinctive – judicial independence, economic freedom, and press and academic freedom – were also very much products of the British presence.
A more significant and more nuanced understanding of Hong Kong’s history would inform the discussion in two different areas. In Britain, and the West more generally, the discourse on the city’s freedoms rightly concentrates on the loss of freedoms in the 2010s and 2020s, but is based on very little understanding of the complexities of Hong Kong’s past. China, in turn, seeks to impose a new ‘patriotic’ history curriculum on the city, approved by Beijing, in which Hong Kong’s history is made purely part of a wider Chinese history and, furthermore, a history in which the rise to power of the CCP is the most important and transformative element. Both narratives omit a profoundly important story about the relationship between imperial power and domination and equal treatment of sovereign states.
Why does it matter? History in East Asia is not just the past; it’s very much current affairs. Yet the lack of attention to East Asian history in the Western, and specifically British, perception is causing an increasingly problematic distortion in British and Western understandings of the contemporary world. Because of its economic and geopolitical weight and the dangerous tensions inherent within it, East Asia will matter to the world in the 2020s more than it has for perhaps two hundred years. Today, some of the world’s most dangerous potential clashes are in the Asia–Pacific region: the nuclear threat from North Korea, maritime conflicts in the South and East China Seas, the possibility of a war over Chinese reunification with Taiwan, the China–India clash in the Himalayas, or the military coup of 2021 in Myanmar. Every single one of these very contemporary flashpoints has its origins in modern East Asian history. Understanding the region’s history, both where it interacts with that of the West and where it does not is an urgent task.