China's Communist Party and Japan: A Forgotten History

The history between the two is more complex than you might realize. 

Although demonstrating a special knack for antagonizing most their neighbors, Chinese leaders appear to take special pleasure in isolating Japan. This is undoubtedly rooted in their continued anger at Imperial Japan’s despicable actions during its occupation of China, and the perception that Tokyo has yet to show sufficient remorse for these past transgressions.

Although entirely understandable, the Chinese Communist Party’s continued anger at Japan rests uncomfortably alongside the reality that it has benefitted greatly from Tokyo. While in no way justifying Imperial Japan’s inexcusable atrocities—which were done with the sole intent of benefiting Japan and the empire—this does create an awkward situation for the Chinese Communist Party, which regularly stirs up anger at Japan in order to bolster its rule at home.

In his recent book, David Lampton argues that China underwent three revolutions during the twentieth century: the collapse of the Qing Empire in 1911, the establishment of the People’s Republic of China under CCP rule in 1949, and the reform and opening up period inaugurated by Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s. Japan has played a crucial role in all these revolutions and was also indispensable in creating the Chinese nationalism that the CCP utilizes to great effect today.

Japan played a leading role in the Qing Empire’s collapse in two ways. The first was its defeat of China in the 1895 Sino-Japanese War, and its subsequent encroachments on Chinese territory. By the time of the war, the Qing Empire’s control over China had already been greatly weakened by its inability to defend Chinese sovereignty from Western powers.

Nonetheless, China’s defeat in the 1895 war was particularly devastating for the legitimacy of the Qing government. Unlike the European powers, the Chinese had since time millennia viewed itself as vastly superior to the Eastern Barbarians, as Chinese often called the Japanese. The fact that Japan had defeated a larger and supposedly modernizing Chinese military force and wrested control of Taiwan (and then Korea) from China deeply undermined domestic support for the Qing Empire. These humiliations at the hands of Japan would become a rallying cry for many of the domestic forces that contributed to the Qing’s collapse in 1911.

As Odd Arne Westad has pointed out, China’s defeat in the 1895 war also paradoxically led some Chinese to view Japan as a source of inspiration for the kind of modernizations that Beijing desperately needed to undertake. Thus, following the war and into the first decade of the twentieth century, the number of Chinese studying in Japan vastly increased. Especially notable with regards to the Qing regime’s collapse, many of the dynasty’s most ardent critics lived in exile in Japan, including Sun Yat-Sen and Chen Duxiu (who would go on to cofound the CCP). Many of these exiles in Japan would go on to play a leading role in the dynasty’s collapse.

It was also largely among this Chinese diaspora living in Japan in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century that the idea of Chinese nationalism began to take root. As Westad observes, “The two key concepts that Chinese in Japan and elsewhere discussed in the first decade of the new century were nationalism and republicanism.” Indeed, opposition to the Qing Dynasty and the growing sense of nationalism were intricately tied together for these Chinese living in Japan. As was true in China itself, these exiles increasingly framed their opposition to Qing rule in ethnic terms, protesting the fact that the Qing elite were Manchus governing a largely Han state. This contradiction, as many Han Chinese saw it, was at the heart of China’s declining place in the region and the world. Not surprisingly, many framed not only their opposition to Qing rule, but also their ideas for what should replace it in terms of Chinese nationalism. For instance, Hu Hanmin, a key Kuomintang (KMT) leader who spent some of the 1900s in Japan, would write: “We can overthrow the Manchus and establish our state because Chinese nationalism and democratic thought are [now] well developed.”