On September 3 the Chinese government will mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II with a massive parade on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Security has increased dramatically, troops have been drilled, and senior Chinese officials – loathe to miss an opportunity to whip up nationalism through reference to China’s victim status – have called for Japan to “shoulder the responsibilities for crimes” committed by Japan during the war.
Japan indeed caused enormous human suffering during the war. And its neighbors have cause to be skeptical of the ambiguous and partial statements of acknowledgment it has made to date.
But the credibility of Beijing’s call for accountability is woefully cheapened by successive Chinese leaderships’ failure to provide account and apology for numerous domestic disasters, many of their own making. Chairman Mao Zedong and his lieutenants were never tried for causing extraordinary deaths and suffering during the Cultural Revolution or the Great Leap Forward; he continues to be revered as a great leader by Beijing. Top leaders’ responsibilities are often glossed over by prosecuting other officials, such as the Gang of Four or Bo Xilai, via show trials. The Tiananmen Mothers, who have sought accountability for the deaths of their children during the 1989 pro-democracy protests, have faced decades of harassment. They have never seen a meaningful or honest inquiry into the events of that year.
Beijing’s responses to less explicitly political disasters have also been marked by obfuscation, cooptation of victims, or denial of responsibility, rather than a willingness to investigate and prosecute those responsible. Many of the parents whose children were killed by the collapse of shoddily constructed schools in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake were offered compensation, but no one was held responsible. Activists who tried to press for government accountability were themselves prosecuted. Similar pathologies have been on display in response to train crashes, tour boats capsizing, and, most recently, the chemical blast in Tianjin.
If China wants to influence others about the need to face up to their pasts, there is a great deal of reckoning to be done at home, too. Goose-stepping past the ghosts of Tiananmen does nothing to bolster Beijing’s demands for accountability for other countries. However, freeing the judiciary and press, tolerating citizens’ criticism, and learning to acknowledge its own mistakes implicit in all these disasters would.