It’s a Matter of Perspective

I enjoy reading USA Today newspapers occasionally— it’s usually on a Friday when I head to the coffee shop to read and write.  While I do at least skim most of the paper, truth is I’m really in it for the crossword puzzles.  These puzzles, like the rest of the medium, are for “everyman”— hard enough to be challenging and easy enough to be solved, at least usually.

Mao Zedong
Mao Zedong

While enjoying the December 27, 2013 issue I stumbled across what I assume was an unintentional juxtaposition of two stories on page 9A.  In one, with a picture of Mao Zedong prominently displayed, we’re told that “China Marks Mao Zedong’s 120th Birthday”.   Catty-corner  to the lower left, a picture of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is shown at the Yasukuni war shrine in Tokyo.

The picture and article about Mr. Abe was due to a controversial visit he paid to a war memorial in which 14 “Class A war criminals” are enshrined, along with another 2 million

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe

other Japanese war dead.  This visit was condemned by China, along with South Korea, presumably because it might be interpreted as demonstrating something less than condemnation on the guilty Japanese war criminals.  I confess I don’t know enough about the particulars to have much of an opinion on this, but nevertheless, this became the latest brouhaha between Japan and China.

The reason this juxtaposition of pictures and stories is striking is due to the following:  during World War II, approximately 36 million people died in the Pacific arena— that’s about half of all deaths in that war.  Of that number around 22 million were Chinese deaths, approximately 4 million military deaths and 18 million civilian deaths.  In other words, around 22 million Chinese died because of Japanese aggression.  By any count, those deaths were tragic and a waste too large to get my mind around and nothing will ever justify Japan’s historic sins against it’s neighbors.  For this reason angst over Mr. Abe’s visit to a site enshrining parties guilty of some of those 22 million deaths may be understandable.

What’s not understandable to me is this— where is the outrage, angst and finger wagging against China celebrating Mao Zedong’s birth?  Where is the outrage over a heavy handed dictator who is believed to be personally responsible for the deaths of 45 million Chinese? Mao’s pogroms during his cultural revolution killed, starved and murdered about two times more Chinese than did the Japanese.  Mao is the worst villain and enemy to the Chinese people that nation has ever seen in its millennia long existence. Yet, today Mao is celebrated as the George Washington of modern China.  Mao is venerated while his Japanese counterparts are vilified.  Truth is, with Stalin in Russian, Mao is one of the worst villains in the history of humanity by body count alone.  Hitler is typically held up as the standard of evil among men, however, Hitler had nothing on Mao.

Consider the current Chinese leadership’s take on Mao’s bloody legacy spoken at his birthday celebration by President Xi Jinping:

“Mao is a great figure who changed the face of the nation and led the Chinese people to a new destiny,” Xi said in Beijing, according to the official news agency Xinhua.

But he added: “Revolutionary leaders are not gods, but human beings. (We) cannot worship them like gods or refuse to allow people to point out and correct their errors just because they are great.

“Neither can we totally repudiate them and erase their historical feats just because they made mistakes.”

Xi — who has regularly cited Mao’s theories — and six other top-ranked leaders visited Mao’s mausoleum in the morning where they bowed three times to his statue and “jointly recalled Comrade Mao’s glorious achievements”, Xinhua said.

Xi gives a verbal nod to Mao’s murderous reign, calling it “mistakes”, and then bows to the statue of the man he says is not a god, praising his “glorious achievements”.  In other words, Chinese leaders bow to their own past murderous leaders, but call on Japan to repudiate theirs.  Why is that?

Because, at least in large measure, it comes down to a matter of perspective.

Perspective on the cultural scale depends on who’s shaping our meta narratives, and to what purpose.  After wars it’s the winners who shape the stories that follow, and therefore the perspective the following generations will have of those conflicts and their actors.  If Germany had been victorious in WW II you can be sure der Fuhrer would still be hailed today as the first Father of der Fatherland.  Japan lost WW II, and that’s a good thing, and that’s why their military leaders are considered villains today.  China was on the winning side of their war with Japan, and it was with Mao at the helm.  And Mao and the Communist Party shaped the narrative of their nation, it’s stories and history.  Mao is hailed as a hero in China today because his political and national heirs share significant elements of his perspective.

If China wants to condemn war criminals it should start at home, with Chairman Mao.  There’s ample and appropriate outrage over Japan’s murderous history a generation ago.  But where’s the outrage over China’s worst villain ever? Where is the calling to account of the current Chinese government in celebrating the worst enemy most Chinese, and most of humanity, have ever seen?  Mao should be recognized and remembered for the crimes against humanity, and particularly against his Chinese compatriots, of which he is unquestionably guilty.  But that’s just my perspective.

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