The Chinese Holocaust and the Politics of Silence

Updated: Jun 7, 2018

I was surprised recently when I struck up a conversation with someone, whom I felt had a particularly impressive grasp of contemporary history, to find that the events that transpired during the Rape of Nanking were not something with which they were in any way acquainted.

It was in that moment that I realised what a seminal piece of work Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking was. First published in 1998, Chang gives the first full English narrative of the deaths, rape, abuse, humiliation and dehumanisation of over 300,000 Chinese civilians during the Second Sino-Japanese War. However, the barbarity of the event, an atrocity where babies were tortured, men buried half-deep so as they could be mauled by dogs and women inexhaustibly gang-raped, is overshadowed by the geopolitics that have kept it silent for decades.

Chang’s narrative begins with a complaint against existing scholarship on the Second World War. From the United States’ best-selling pictorial history to Churchill’s memoirs to work by historians such as Henri Michel, the Rape of Nanking is almost systematically overlooked. She makes clear her desire to break open a new field of study which focuses on this atrocity. The occidental interpretation of world history and politics is one that individuals such as Frantz Fanon and Edward Said have pushed against, yet it seems appropriate for explaining the exclusion of this tragedy, which occurred outside the European theatre of the war and before that war ‘started’. Europe, which had been undermining Chinese sovereignty since the middle of the 19th century, did little to criticise Japan’s 1931 invasion of the country, and continues to insult the nation through its failure to recognise the 1937 tragedy, as well as the war in Asia more generally.

In the initial section of her book, Chang attempts to explain the behaviour of the Japanese troops by analysing their cultural heritage, the political modernisation of the Meiji Restoration and the influence of the bushido ethics of the Samurai being enforced as a universal moral code for the citizenry. The Westernisation of the Japanese is central to her analysis. For 250 years, the ruling Tokugawa dynasty had secluded the island nation. The result was that military technology had failed to progress, inescapably leading to surrender when the might of the US navy pulled into port in 1852. Japan quickly evolved, developing a Western-style army and naval fleet. Furthermore, Western ideologies of racial hierarchies began to gain traction amongst scholarly thinkers, and Japan became determined that it, as the superior Asian race, must cultivate its own imperial ambitions; a thought that became ever more essential as the nation’s population more than doubled in a matter of decades. Alongside this, absolute devotion to the Emperor, the imperial ideology and the worthless nature of the Chinese was imbued into Japanese soldiers, who were treated brutally. It would be the culmination of these factors that made the Rape of Nanking inevitable.

By the middle of 1937, a full-scale invasion of the Chinese mainland had begun. Japanese commanders were confident that they could take control of the entire state within three months. They were mistaken. The stronger-than-expected defence of Shanghai had bogged the Imperial Japanese Army down for longer than that alone. The Japanese were angry; and morale and discipline was low. It was with this baggage that attention was turned to the Republic of China’s capital – Nanking. After the refusal of an ultimatum to concede the city, the battle began. The poorly organised Chinese army were overwhelmed, and thousands died. But as Chang notes, the worst was yet to come.

The Rape of Nanking saw some of the most brutal, dehumanising, depraved acts of the human spirit repeated daily for six tragic weeks.

If the few survivors hoped that they, or their departed loved ones, would see justice at the end

of the war then they were to be further disappointed by the international community. The International Military Tribunal for the Far East was designated to try Imperial Japanese War criminals of Class A crimes, whilst the Nanjing War Crimes Tribunal tried criminals arrested on suspicion of Class B and C crimes. These tribunals did see a number of figures put to death for their crimes, but many others, including members of the Imperial Royal Family - such as Prince Asaka, a man Chang finds to hold great responsibility for the atrocity - were never brought to justice. Furthermore, discussion of the massacre is limited in historiographical literature.

Chang explains that this is the result of geopolitics. China, in the midst of a civil war that went on to claim the lives of as many as eight million people, was not in a position to engage in foreign diplomacy. Indeed, once the People’s Republic of China had been founded and entrenched, it was too desperate for international recognition and too weak domestically to threaten other nations. Perhaps of greater importance, however, was the Cold War. By the end of the Korean War, the United States was far too concerned over the spread of communism and wanted a powerful Asian ally to repel the soviet ideology. As such, it defiantly supported Japan.

As Chang explains, the problem is that this has emboldened Japanese nationalists, who have not had to see their leaders apologize for the event or pay reparations to offset some of the damage caused. Even today, Japanese schools have textbooks which deny the event or falsely problematize the history. A number of Japanese officials, including a former leader of the Liberal Democratic Party that Shinzo Abe, the current Prime Minister represents, have publically denied that Japanese forces did kill 300,000 innocent Chinese civilians.

Shinzō Abe and Xi Jinping

To this day, international relations between Japan and China are impacted by this denial. A 2010 joint report from the Chinese and Japanese governments paved the way for greater consensus on the issue, but nevertheless significant factors, including the number of casualties, remain points of contention. Indeed, the strength of the Uyoku dantai, the Japanese extreme right groups, would be significantly damaged by the denouncement deniers of the Nanking Massacre and its legislative outlaw; as is the case in Germany today with the Holocaust. This book is essential in bringing an issue which has, particularly in Western spheres, been overlooked but which, in East Asian discourse at least, still has significant impact. A must-read for those who wish to understand and predict the future of Sino-Japanese relations and for those who want a rude awakening of the occidentalist slant that continues to persist in much scholarly discussion.

Those in the West should learn considerable lessons from this episode. The denial of tragedies is something that we consider to be objectionable within Europe. Germany’s education system entrenches upon students the horrors of the holocaust, and the reasons why denial is illegal. After the genocide in Serbia during the dissolution of the Soviet Union, war criminals were held to account in Europe. Yet time and again there is a failure to uphold these principles outside of the continent. In Africa with the Rwandan genocide, in the Middle East with war crimes in Yemen, and in Asia with the mass expulsion of the Rohingya, the West remains paralysed to inaction.

The establishment of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ at the UN in 2005 clearly states that multilateral responses to crimes against humanity is not only justifiable, but is in fact the duty of member states. Geopolitical manoueverings can silence victims and allow perpetrators to escape reprimand. This should be embarrassing for any government in office when it occurs, and it is something that we all have an obligation to oppose.

Recommended reading;

Chang, Iris (1998). The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II. Penguin USA.


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