Human Rights in China and Japan: The Pot Calling the Kettle Black

Irving Louis Horowitz


Through the severe punishment meted out to him, Liu has become the foremost symbol of this wide-raging struggle for human rights in China.

—Nobel Prize Committee (2010)

Due to its impressive growth, the Chinese economy has now exceeded in size, if not in quality, that of Japan. However, such developments have not dulled Chinese sensibilities with respect to the wrongs inflicted on their people during the Sino-Japanese wars of the 1930s. Quite the contrary: the new status of China’s economy, increasing military prowess, and explosive urban growth seem to have had the reverse impact. If anything, it has sharpened the pressure on Japan to acknowledge its violations of human rights in both China and Southeast Asia prior to and during World War II, highlighted by bombings of civilian centers, the rape of Chinese women, the treatment of women and children with a ferocity that bordered on slavery, and the suppression of legitimate regimes and their replacement by puppet rulers responsible to the Japanese empire. The danger of authoritarian excesses is that they often come back to haunt the perpetrators, whoever they might be. The settlement of accounts—moral no less than physical—can be postponed, but those accounts must eventually be paid.

There is no question that the behavior of the Japanese armed forces in occupied China in the 1930s and 1940s went beyond the bounds of toleration. This has been fully documented by researchers and scholars from East and West alike. Indeed, few have better captured what occurred than the late Iris Chang, author of The Rape and Massacre of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II (Penguin Books, 1998), to whom the conference at which this essay was first presented was dedicated.

It should be appreciated that the breakdown in norms of behavior by the Imperial Japanese Army was well known and reported. In 1946, the International Military Tribunal of the Far East (IMFTE) was established, with eleven judges selected by the governments sitting on the Allied Far Eastern Commission. Twenty-eight high-ranking Japanese political and military leaders were indicted on fifty-five counts of “crimes against peace, conventional war crimes, and crimes against humanity.” The trials lasted two and a half years. They did not resolve the problem of how one holds leaders responsible for the deeds of their followers, and their verdicts were found to be shaky under international law.

Seven defendants were sentenced to death, sixteen to life terms, and two to lesser terms; two died during the trials, and one was found insane. After reviewing the decisions, Douglas MacArthur expressed his regrets and fears for how they would impact Japan’s national reconstruction. He called the crimes “utterly repugnant,” praised the work of the tribunal, and upheld the verdicts: “No human decision is infallible but I can conceive of no judicial process where greater safeguard was made to evolve justice.”

The decisions served to stimulate animosity rather than reassurance in victims because there were no trials involving non-Chinese victims. Japanese atrocities had not been limited to assaults on Chinese civilians but were also suffered by Philippine civilians, to say nothing of American troops stationed in that nation and British troops stationed in Burma after those nations fell in the early stages of World War II. This low regard for the lives of others extended to the Kamikaze squadrons that viewed Japanese airmen as expendable human bombs to be exploded against enemy warships. The problem with regarding such acts as heroic, as is the case all too frequently, is that those in Tokyo who ordered such assaults comported themselves as gods, issuing orders and treating airmen as cannon fodder.

The events in the Asian theater of World War II raise serious issues of a general nature that even now, long after the war in the Pacific is a distant memory, remain unresolved. Are juridical decisions of this sort a function of international law or simply military triumph? Simply put, if human life is a unitary phenomenon, so too are antihuman urgings toward taking life. Attitudes toward the sanctity of life do not end at national borders, nor are they restricted only to certain peoples. Demands that Japan move toward formal “acknowledgement, apology and reconciliation” for the Nanking massacre are entirely legitimate. Such actions have consequences for a culture as a whole. But it is the unitary and global character of life-giving and death-making that requires serious attention even at this late date.

It must be noted that the wartime behavior of the Japanese toward the Chinese was of such momentous dimension that Japan’s claims against the United States for unleashing atomic bombs against Hiroshima and Nagasaki were seriously compromised. Japan cannot be silent about the atrocities committed by the Imperial Japanese Army in mainland China and on island nations in the Pacific in the 1930s and ‘40s and simultaneously claim that the United States exceeded the bounds of acceptable wartime action by using the atom bomb. Leaving aside tactical and strategic issues concerning the use of the ultimate weapon, Japan cannot continue to deny the serious nature of its actions in mainland Asia while asserting the special horrors of what in turn was done to its people on its soil. To claim a special status as a victim and then defend a legacy and history of victimizing others simply will not wash.

Having said that, it must be noted that the assaults of the Japanese against the Chinese were brutal but relatively selective when juxtaposed against the behavior of the Chinese Communist regime toward its own people during the Maoist epoch. The famine of 1959–1962 resulting from the misguided economic policies of the Great Leap Forward exemplified this. Once it became clear that the Great Leap Forward had not only failed to produce promised communist economic miracles but also led to serious economic disruptions, Chairman Mao refused to change course because he feared a loss of face, if not of his preeminent position in the party and government.

After crushing his supposed “rightist” enemies, Mao relaunched the Great Leap Forward in late 1959; it collapsed on its own a year later. Due to lack of direct evidence, the number of famine victims can be calculated only on the basis of incomplete demographic data. The most recent estimates supplied by Frank Dikotter in Mao’s Great Famine claims that these brutal policies cost the lives of between thirty and forty million people. Such staggering numbers of deaths exceed the Soviet destruction of the Russian peasantry, which claimed only 7.5 million [!] casualties.

The telltale signs of ultra-nationalist genocide disguised as class warfare were already apparent several years after the Communist Revolution in China. In 1951, the Chinese revolutionary regime took military possession of Tibet and declared it to be part of Chinese history and sovereignty. From that point forward, the maltreatment of Tibet as a province and a people became so evident that in 1960 the nongovernmental International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) delivered a report titled Tibet and the Chinese People’s Republic to the United Nations. The report had been prepared by the ICJ’s Legal Inquiry Committee, which was composed of eleven lawyers from around the world. It accused the Chinese of genocide in Tibet. The ICJ documented accounts of massacres, tortures, and killings, bombardment of monasteries, and the extermination of whole nomadic tribes. The widely reported death figure of 400,000 Tibetans derives from census reports of Tibet that show 200,000 “missing” people. The Central Tibetan Administration claimed that the number of pe
ople who have died from starvation, violence, or other indirect causes since 1950 is approximately 1.2 million (this in a nation with a total population of under three million). Despite a variety of proclamations, there is complete domination of the region by the Chinese central government and tacit acceptance of the situation in Tibet. There has been no acknowledgement on the part of the Chinese government or Communist party of such massive “ethnic cleansing.”

As painful as it might be for peace and human rights advocates, the Chinese Communist government’s recent denunciation of the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo is a sharp reminder that values reside best in people, not nations. Liu, long imprisoned for his pacifist activities and calls for free speech and free elections, has been bitterly criticized by the Chinese government. Having had his absentee day of fame at the Nobel ceremonies, he remains a potent illustration of the long, repressive history of the People’s Republic of China. He has been termed a criminal by the regime, and the Nobel award has been denounced as an obscenity by the Chinese foreign ministry.

This rather modest rebellion by an individual indicates that the current regime continues to pay homage to Mao Zedong. Some officials do so tacitly, others loudly. That the heirs to a dictator held largely responsible for untold millions of Chinese victims will not even tolerate a nonviolent show by a solitary figure is an indication that economic growth entwined with political repression can sometimes serve as a model, and it can do so with the silent approbation of the democratic West. Consumerism in the economy and communism in the polity form a potent but unpleasant brew that requires far more attention than it has thus far received in humanistic circles.

The policy of development without democracy, or more precisely a Leninist model of state power coexisting with a Keynesian approach to monetary and fiscal policy, is the order of the day in China. Such a strange model becomes a battleground for human rights—better yet, a reaffirmation of dictatorship within, while expecting support for efforts to contain abuses by foreign forces—not only in war but in current offshore incidents of a far less serious nature. David Zweig of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology has put matters succinctly: “Nationalists will interpret this [Nobel Prize] award as an attempt to undermine China’s national strength, while many liberals will probably be saddened by the fact that their country has been embarrassed in this way.” More simply, the unitary struggle against tyranny is sharply reaffirmed by such draconian policies. The incapacity of tyrannies to appreciate the degree to which despotism has no borders makes it evident that the search for democracy also has no fixed boundaries.

What this points to is the dismal record of totalitarian regimes as such, not the nature of national character or personality traits of certain leaders. There is enough horror to go around. The demands for special acknowledgment of war crimes, far in excess of what was provided by the military tribunals following World War II, are genuine and must be addressed by the Japanese government. By the same token, the behavior of the Maoist regime must also be acknowledged and at some point repudiated by Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, perhaps on a future visit to the United States. The idea that Maoism is a communist ideology as well as an intellectual stance remains celebrated in China, while at the same time China demands Japanese restitution and admission of atrocities by the Japanese imperial regime against the Chinese people. This does not play well in the West. It is, to say the least, a one-sided “strong wind.”

The horrors perpetrated by dictators are stains on the traditions and cultures of great nations. But if they are to be absolved through apologetics or resolved through international tribunals, the same justice must be meted out to all who choose the path of political rule through demonic behavior. Those who stand for human rights and freedom of expression must do so in support of a normative structure—a rule of law as such. The unitary character of totalitarianism does not distinguish between the subtleties of national variations; nor does it allow for theories of exceptionalism to preempt civilized behavior toward one-time opponents. The position of the Chinese government—and, no less, the voices of the many overseas Chinese living in free societies—could play essential roles in a struggle that is far from over in the twenty-first century, one that has seen injustice and mass murder become an accepted, even routine, part of our world. Let us hope that reflections on these broader themes are not lost or conveniently ignored in the search for partial justice in a portion of the world that still seeks tranquility and liberation from past nightmares.

Irving Louis Horowitz

Irving Louis Horowitz is Hannah Arendt University professor emeritus of sociology and political science at Rutgers University. He also serves as chairman of the board and editorial director of Transaction Publishers at Rutgers. He is the author of Taking Lives: Genocide and Mass Murder, now in its fifth edition, and Radicalism and the Revolt against Reason, which recently had its fiftieth anniversary reissue. This article is based on a plenary address delivered at the 2010 International Education Conference on the History of World War II in Asia.

  Through the severe punishment meted out to him, Liu has become the foremost symbol of this wide-raging struggle for human rights in China. —Nobel Prize Committee (2010) Due to its impressive growth, the Chinese economy has now exceeded in size, if not in quality, that of Japan. However, such developments have not dulled Chinese …

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