Ghost of defeat haunts China 120 years on

opinion January 21, 2014 00:00

By Ching Cheong
The Straits Time

This year marks the 120th anniversary of the first Sino-Japanese war in 1894, known to the Chinese as the Jia-Wu war, that dealt China a devastating blow. It comes at a time when bilateral ties between the Northeast Asian neighbours are at an all-time low

Many wonder if the two regional powers would go to war again.
While actual war is not yet in sight, a propaganda war is well under way. Chinese envoys to the United States, Russia and United Kingdom published newspaper commentaries in these countries urging people to stop the revival of militarism in Japan.
Among other themes, the articles argued that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is trying to challenge the post-war world order defined by these World War II allies, which are therefore duty-bound to foil his attempts.
Abe instructed Japanese envoys to retort.
As the situation stands now, a hot war is unlikely. China has made it clear it will not fire the first shot. But if Japan should do so, it will “not have a chance to fire the second one”, Admiral Wu Shengli, commander of the Chinese navy, was quoted saying last September.
Short of a hot war, Beijing will pressure Japan to oust its prime minister. In a rare move, a foreign ministry spokesman called Abe a persona non grata, and said the Chinese leaders would not have any dealings with him.
Beijing also tried to persuade Washington to take a similar stand by suggesting Japan’s militarism was not in the US’ interest.
This year is another Jia-Wu year. The traditional Chinese calendar names a year by matching 10 “heavenly stems” with 12 “earthly branches”. The year 1894 happened to be the pairing of Jia (a heavenly stem) with Wu (an earthly branch) and therefore, was called the Jia-Wu year.
Under this system, the same name would recur every 60 years, as it did in 1954 and now in 2014. Since the 1894 defeat, the term Jia-Wu has become a symbol of national humiliation, arousing strong anti-Japanese feelings among the Chinese.
Asked what to expect for another Jia-Wu year, foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang put it tersely last month: “Today’s China is not the same one as 120 years ago.”
The Global Times compared the three Jia-Wu years: The first Jia-Wu, 1894, precipitated the end of old China, whose 3,000-year-old dynastic system collapsed 17 years later in 1911.
The second Jia-Wu, 1954, heralded the rise of a new China, marked by its ability to match the US in the Korean War.
The third Jia-Wu this year brings the “grand revival of the Chinese nation”, through which the Chinese aspire to attain world supremacy in 2049, when the new China under Chinese Communist Party rule turns 100.
This new-found confidence explains why Beijing is now less tolerant of Japan.
There are also sober minds warning against recklessness, like Wu Jinan, director of Japan studies at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies. They caution that while stronger than before, China may not be able to win another Sino-Japanese war because the fundamental reason for its defeat 120 years ago - corruption - remains as serious.
Many Chinese studies on the cause of China’s defeat in 1894 quote the intelligence reports by two famous Japanese spies Arao Sei and Munakata Kotarou. Both said corruption had decayed the Chinese society from top to bottom, and that China was not war-worthy, although its economic and military powers were considered superior to Japan’s. Japan went on to invade and defeat China, proving the spies right.
Since the key factor that contributed to the defeat 120 years ago is still haunting China now, there is clearly no room for complacency on the part of China.