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David Murrin is the author of Breaking the Code of History, the culmination of decades of personal research across a wide range of disciplines. David compellingly argues that human behaviour is not random, but determined by specific, quantifiable and predictable patterns fuelled by our need to survive and prosper. He has called this cycle The Five Stages of Empire, which due to its fractal nature is applicable to empires, all the way down to the cycle of the individual. According to David, to resolve the issues confronting us today we cannot merely study the past. The human race will need to understand this precise algorithm of behaviour that has caused us to re-enact the same destructive cycles in ever-greater magnitudes, in order to change our future. He is also a Global Fellow at PS21.
At a time when the rise of China is about to enter a new phase with an overt locking of horns with America, it seems appropriate to examine the polarisation process that China has been undergoing and its implications for nations onto whom it is focused. Before we do that, it is important to remind ourselves of how the polarisation process operates.
In Breaking the Code of History we have explained that in physics, the term ‘polarisation’ denotes the condition by which the oscillation of certain types of wave can be oriented on the same plane. Individuals, cultures and empires can be similarly polarised: that is, they can define their values unanimously and cohesively, bonding as a single society and focusing their energies against a perceived threat from a competing system. Competition can bind a group by leading it to establish a common goal.
Polarisation can act as a positive force that is expressed, for example, through community self-improvement or in team-based contexts, such as sports. However, as competition increases between two groups, withdrawal from these amicable relations becomes more pronounced, and a hardening of differences leads to inevitable conflict. This process occurs at the individual level as well as the group level, and most people will have experienced it in one form or another. Polarisation manifesting at the level of nations and empires leads to war, with the collective character becoming more extreme or fundamentalist in its values. In the process, killing other human beings becomes justifiable because they (the opposition) embrace values that are anathema: they are ‘the enemy’ and no longer viewed as human.
The long-term memory of a collective can be highly selective, consigning some parts of its history to oblivion and holding on to others for centuries, furthering the group’s sense of identity and purpose. It generally achieves this by feeding on the darker aspects of the collective memory, highlighting the enemy’s despicable characteristics and emphasing fear and revenge to ensure that it has a decisive advantage.
The most pronounced effects of polarisation are found in nations that are ascending the five stages of Empire curve, i.e. in late regionalisation and ascension to empire phases of the curve. An example that rings clearly in history is the relationship between Prussia and France in the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). In 1806, the Prussian army was humiliated by France. Some measure of revenge was enacted by Prussia on the retreating French after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. In the negotiations leading up to the subsequent Treaty of Frankfurt (1871) the Prussians wanted to punish the French by taking control of the Alsace and Lorraine territories. However, more even-handed and wise British intervention blocked this approach seeking a strong France that would balance other continental powers. Prussia, however, never forgot and continued to encourage the memory of 1806 to justify and focus it actions during the 1870 Franco-Prussian War where they were victorious and annexed the territory of Alsace-Lorraine.
Thus, the 1806 epicenter of polarisation for Germany sounds very similar to the Japanese Nanking Massacre (also called the Rape of Nanking when in the Second Sino-Japanese War soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army murdered an estimated 40,000 to over 300,000 Chinese civilians and disarmed combatants) for the Chinese, who are in a similar expanding state. Question is: is this process inevitable?
II. China and Japan
So how could Japan attempt to defuse the primary polarisation effects from China caused by their past actions? One of the key focuses for recent Chinese anger has been the visits by three of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet ministers to Yasukuni Shrine, a national Japanese Shinto shrine that houses the souls as ‘Kami ‘ of the dead who served the Emperor during wars from 1867 to 1951. Enshrinement under the Shinto faith typically carries absolution of earthly deeds, which is relevant as there are 2,466,532 people contained in the shrine’s Book of Souls, of which 1,068 were convicted of war crimes by a post World War II court. Of those, 14 are convicted Class A war criminals (“crime against peace”) as found by the war crimes tribunals or IMTFE (International Military Tribunal for the Far East) that comprised the victors of World War II.
It should be said that there has been considerable doubt about the method of information collection used by the IMTFE, the so called “Best Evidence Rule” that allowed simple hearsay with no secondary support to be entered against the accused. As a consequence, the court could well have enacted an invalid form of victor’s justice due to the significant procedural flaws which gave many Japanese people a reason to believe that the convicted were not war criminals. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that by Western standards Japanese atrocities were prolific during the period of hostilities and that as a nation their armed services manifested many more than 1,068 war criminals. As comment aside, I am sure that the Allies would have had their fair share too, as would have the Chinese Forces.
Irrespective of the validity of the convictions, with only 0.04% of the souls in the shrine being convicted war criminals, the Chinese propaganda machine has been hard at work using the visits of the Japanese cabinet ministers as an example of unapologetic behaviour. Indeed visiting officials do so as individuals rather than as officials, due to the formal separation of the State from the Shinto religion.
So what could Japan do to reduce Chinese anger? Firstly, to make an official apology for Japanese actions during the war with China. The second might be to find a way to separate the souls of the convicted war criminals from the remainder. However, as they without doubt believed that they were serving the emperor through their actions this might be very hard to ask for the Japanese culture to accept. More importantly, it will be viewed as weakness by the Chinese at a deep level and only encourage them further to find another polarisation process to catalyse their population against Japan.
Sadly, however, from the extensive study of the five stages of empire (i.e. phase of expansion to empire), such polarisation dynamics are always driven by the expanding and aggressive nation who is looking for an excuse to justify their national agenda of expansion and needs to polarise its people to serve the collective cause. Thus I am of the opinion that China’s march on the road to war is almost unstoppable, and even if the contentious topic of visits to the Yasukuni Shrine were to be resolved, another one would be found to substitute the Chinese purpose. In response, we can expect a secondary defensive polarisation from Japan which is but a natural reaction to the primary polarisation from China. Notably, the process will only abate when the impulsive primary polarisation process stops, which currently seems unlikely.
III. Remembering a time when China and America had a common cause
The polarisation process between China and America is now well underway, with the primary energy of China now manifesting a secondary defensive response from America. In all probability, this clash will escalate, but that being said, every attempt should be made to inhibit this process and a good place to start was a time when the two nations shared a common cause in WW2.
With respect to a better understanding of WW2 and the ramifications of the Chinese-Japanese conflict upon America there are a few key points that Americans and Chinese should remember that hark back to the time when the two nations shared a common cause as allies. Could it be possible to lower the current rising temperature levels between these great powers by reminding the Chinese of this phase of friendship?
- China was weak at the time as it was preoccupied with its own civil war between the communists and nationalists, and it was into that crack that the Japanese launched themselves, so to some extent China has some responsibility for making itself vulnerable.
- Japan’s invasion of Manchuria on 18 September 1931 clearly demonstrated its expansionary objectives which were further clarified in 1937 with full on battles between the Japanese and Chinese. By March 1941 the Americans were clearly supporting the Chinese with the Lend-Lease program and embargos on Japan that in the months ahead tightened the flow of resources. Next came America to impose sanction on Japan which then forced them to attack Pearl Harbour.
- The Chinese war against Japan absorbed massive resources and some 70% of all Japanese casualties were on mainland China. In that regard, China acted in a similar fashion to Russia in a role that absorbed valuable manpower and resources that otherwise would have been fighting US forces. This vital role has not been given enough credit, as has not the price the Chinese paid during that period and the beneficial effect it had on the American Pacific campaign.
To reduce tensions perhaps the West should recognise and celebrate the common cause of WW2 in an attempt to reduce the current building friction between East and West.
An earlier version of this piece appeared on DavidMurrin.co.uk on September 14, 2015.
PS21 is a non-national, non-ideological, non-governmental organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.