Hong Kong’s Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung Yun-hung said there could only be one answer to the question in the Diploma of Secondary Education history exam regarding Sino-Japanese relations between 1900 and 1945: Japan had done China harm, and no good at all, during the second Sino-Japanese war.
As students of Sino-Japanese history know, Japan’s prime minister Kakuei Tanaka flew to Beijing in September 1972 to normalise diplomatic relations with China, and met premier Zhou Enlai and Mao.
Before beginning a discussion of sensitive political issues, including the disputed islands called Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan, Tanaka started to apologise for Japan’s invasion of China in the 1930s and 1940s.
Surprisingly, Mao told him there was no need to apologise. Japan, Mao said, had done the Communist Party a great favour.
“We must express our gratitude to Japan,” Mao said. “If Japan didn’t invade China, we could have never achieved the cooperation between the Kuomintang and the Communist Party. We could have never developed and eventually taken political power for ourselves. It is due to Japan’s help that we are able to meet here in Beijing.”
In other words, had it not been for Japan’s aggression, the communists would have been wiped out by Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang army. By forcing Chiang to focus on resisting Japan rather than eradicating the communists, the invasion gave Mao’s forces years to regroup and expand their territorial control.
At the end of the Sino-Japanese war, Chiang’s exhausted troops then had to resume the civil war with the communists, who vanquished them in three years, forcing them to retreat to Taiwan while, on the mainland, the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed.
All these were consequences of Japan’s invasion. Whether communist control of the mainland is good or bad is another issue but, according to Hong Kong’s secretary for education, what Japan did was harmful, with no redeeming quality.
Mao’s analysis has been confirmed by one of the foremost historians today, Steve Tsang, director of SOAS China Institute, who wrote in 2015 that Chiang’s decision to confront Japanese aggression “dramatically changed the fortune of the exhausted and heavily depleted CCP (Chinese Communist Party) struggling to survive in the poor northwest of China”. It was a “turning point” for the communist forces.
Tsang said: “Whether the CCP could otherwise have survived Chiang’s ‘final push’ in his extermination campaign cannot be known.” But Mao evidently believed that the communists would have lost and, as he put it, would not have been in power in 1972.
Surely, in view of Mao’s analysis, Yeung’s stance – that no good has come of the Japanese aggression – suggests it is a bad thing for the communists to have won the civil war, established the People’s Republic of China, and to be controlling China today, since all these flow from the Japanese invasion.
It may well be argued that the history question was too sophisticated for secondary school students, though not university students. But this is not the argument the secretary for education made. He seems to see the issue as one of political correctness, which surely is not what education should be about.
The proposal by Wan Ho-yin, a veteran examiner, that the examination authority should check the performance of a sample of students before deciding to scrap the question has much to commend it.
There is no reason to think that just because students were provided with passages from the early 20th century, they would forget what they knew about the Japanese invasion in the later decades. The question was clearly designed to test students, and a sampling of answers would reveal whether they applied critical thinking and assessed both the positive and negative aspects of the Japanese actions.
A check will show whether Hong Kong students are capable of independent thinking or whether they are gullible, believing whatever they are told, regardless of what they know to be true.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator. Follow him on Twitter