The Magazine

Hu, What, Wen, Where, and Why

China's leaders lecture Japan, but neglect their own history.

May 9, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 32 • By JOHN J. TKACIK JR.
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

MILLIONS OF CHINESE FAMILIES SUFFERED during the invasion and occupation of the mainland by Imperial Japanese armies in the Second World War. But President Hu Jintao's and Premier Wen Jiabao's family tragedies came at the hands of fellow Chinese, not Japanese--and occurred rather more recently.

Wen Jiabao is the third-ranked member of the Chinese Communist party and as such is probably the third-from-last person in China who should complain about anyone's inability to "face up to history squarely." Of course, this didn't deter him from demanding exactly that of Japan on April 12. "Only a country that respects history, takes responsibility for history, and wins over the trust of peoples in Asia and the world at large can take greater responsibilities in the international community," he declaimed, by way of justifying China's opposition to a permanent Japanese seat at the United Nations Security Council, and by way of excusing the recent anti-Japanese rioting in China.

Indeed, Japan was responsible for mass deaths in China between 1937 and 1945. Western historians say as many as 8 million Chinese civilians died during the period, and perhaps 2.5 million soldiers. Chinese polemicists say 30-35 million died. It was horrific, and Japan paid a price for its aggression. Since its unconditional surrender in 1945, a democratic Japan has become one of the world's most generous aid donors, giving about $35 billion in development assistance to China between 1980 and 2004.

It does not add to the argument to point out that, by all accounts, the Chinese Communist party killed more Chinese during the Anti-Rightist Campaign (1957-59), the Great Leap Forward (1958-62), and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-76) than the Japanese did in World War II. But at least Chinese leaders should admit the real cause of their families' devastation.

Premier Wen's childhood is described in a definitive Chinese-language biography, China's New Premier: The Rise to Power by Dr. Yang Zhongmei, written in early 2003. According to this account, when Wen Jiabao was just six years old, he suffered the trauma of seeing his village sacked, his family compound burned to the ground, and his beloved grandfather, Wen Yingshi, shot. This occurred in January 1949, in the middle of the Chinese Communist fourth field army's offensive against the city of Tientsin during China's civil war.

Young Jiabao's home village of Yixingfu was just across a narrow canal that marked the northern border of Tientsin city and its outskirts, on the defensive perimeter of the defending Nationalist Chinese army. Apparently, the Nationalists destroyed Yixingfu and 12 other suburban villages to clear a line of fire against the invading Communists, an act of brutality that the American consulate in Tientsin protested at the time. Premier Wen's home was burned and his grandfather shot by Chinese Nationalists.

Premier Wen has not been shy about recounting his youth to American audiences. During his December 2003 visit to the United States, the premier told an audience at Harvard University, "I spent my childhood mostly in the smoke and fire of war. . . . When Japanese aggressors drove all the people in my place to the Central Plaza, I had to huddle closely against my mother. Later on, my whole family and house were all burned up, and even the primary school that my grandpa built himself all went up in flames."

To an audience in Washington, D.C., he repeated the story. "Even today, I still could remember that. Because even a child had to face the bayonets of fascist aggressors. . . . And my family's and my house was all burned up in the war, and even the school, the modest school that my grandfather built with his own hands, was all destroyed." It certainly sounded like the premier was blaming his family's woes on the Japanese, but he was not even three years old when the Japanese surrendered Tientsin.

The careful syntax of the premier's sentences suggests he may have been uncomfortable with an outright claim that the Japanese burned his family home when this was not the case. Still, this is hardly a model of forthrightness from a man who exhorts others to "face up to history squarely."

Probably Premier Wen's parents did suffer under the Japanese. Certainly they suffered under the Nationalists and the Communists. They spent an obligatory year in the countryside during Mao's "Cultural Revolution" for capitalist sins--both were private school teachers who took money for their services, and Premier Wen's grandfather owned his own school. Premier Wen himself was caught in a fierce factional struggle as a graduate student at the Beijing Geology Institute that became the headquarters for the Red Guard "Earth Faction." In February 1968, he was exiled to the deserts of Gansu province, a thousand miles away in Western China, while his parents labored on a farm.