Truth and reconciliation

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 March, 2008, 12:00am

Tiny flakes of snow fall from a pearly grey sky outside Fan Jianchuan's giant storehouse of history in Anren, Sichuan province. Here, the billionaire developer, obsessive collector and amateur sleuth plans a museum to confront a dark chapter of China's past - widespread wartime collaboration with the Japanese. It has been snowing steadily for a week and the depository is bone-achingly cold.

The high-ceilinged, concrete building is so large an olive anti-aircraft gun from China's anti-Japanese war of resistance, as mainlanders call the conflict that was subsumed by the second world war, sits in the middle of the first floor like an abandoned toy. Archive keeper Chen Hua is upstairs leafing through a silk-bound volume she has pulled out of a tall, glass-fronted bookcase. The book, whose pages open like a fan, is the kind guests sign when they arrive at a fancy reception. In her 50s, Chen looks more like a bus conductor than the keeper of some of the most contentious history in the mainland.

'Look at their writing, how beautiful it is,' she says, turning the creamy pages, fingers slowed by temperatures well below freezing. On each page, in swirling black calligraphy, are flowery words of praise for the Japanese overlords written by members of Manchuria's 1930s collaborationist government. (Manchukuo, as the Japanese rechristened the area, was seized in 1931 and deposed emperor Pu Yi was installed the following year.) Chen purses her lips. 'In Chinese we say wenruqiren [a person's writing shows his character] but evidently, in this case, it didn't. Look, these men were all traitors and they wrote so beautifully.'

More than seven decades after the Japanese invaded central China in 1937 and set up puppet governments across the country, a dusty curtain surrounding the shameful subject of collaboration is being twitched aside by a small band of mostly amateur historians, with some shocking results.

For one, Fan believes the real number of Chinese collaborators, including those in Manchuria, was as high as 2 million, about four times as many as officially acknowledged.

'We know France also had a traitor government, the Vichy government. But by international standards it's very unusual to see such a large traitor force, such a big quisling army and big quisling social force,' says Fan, a chain-smoking, powerhouse of a man with a bristle-cut hairdo and wire-rimmed glasses. As he speaks, fast and with a Sichuan accent, Fan pauses occasionally to drink tea Sichuanese style, straight from the spout of a small ceramic pot.

Some say the actions of these men helped justify torture, murder and oppression on a scale that changed the collective personality of the country, creating hatred and mistrust for Japan that persists today. 'It's because the Japanese had the help, the support, the aid of these traitors that Japan was able to hold out in China for 14 years,' says Fan. 'They supplied them with everything, including grain and money.'

Others see it differently, arguing collaboration was a survival technique that enabled millions to live to see the Japanese surrender in 1945. Either way, the era has never been properly examined.

'There was no overall accounting that took place at the end of the war,' says historian Zhang Sheng of Nanjing University. 'It's impossible to know exactly how many collaborators there were, as the Kuomintang stopped counting in 1948 and declared a kind of amnesty. There were just too many. They shot 1,000 or so, including the top politicians, then left the others alone. Too many children would have been left orphans if they'd kept going.'

Most disturbingly for many Chinese, raised on a simple Communist Party diet of right and wrong, internet writers such as Zhao Wumian and Lin Siyun are challenging the very concept of 'traitor'.

On the mainland, the epithet hanjian - literally, 'evil Han' - can be hurled at anyone who disagrees with a speaker on sensitive issues, particularly those involving history or race. Historians believe the term is overused and that the mainland needs to go through some soul-searching about the war, much as France did in the 1970s, when it faced up to the true extent of its Nazi collaborationist past. Yet there is a major difference between the two situations; spurred by a desire to gain a fuller understanding of history, Zhao and Lin are suggesting the once-unthinkable - many collaborators may in fact have been patriots.

Other people such as filmmaker Ang Lee are adding to the heady brew. In Lee's recent hit, Lust, Caution, the protagonist, patriot and anti-Japanese spy Wong Chiachi, betrays her fellow plotters and, in a politically incorrect move that has confounded communists and feminists alike, chooses instead to save the life of her sadistic lover, Mr Yee, a member of the pro-Japanese Shanghai government.

For that, 28-year-old actress Tang Wei is in serious trouble; on March 6, propaganda officials, who six months earlier - bafflingly - had passed the film, retrospectively slapped a ban on Tang, ordering all television coverage about her or 'related issues' to stop immediately. Also, leaders reportedly lashed out at the mainland's film censor, the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television, for allowing such 'unhealthy' fare into the country. Lust, Caution blurred the boundaries between traitor and patriot, and stirred up strong reactions across the mainland.

'Many of my friends were really bothered that she betrayed her fellow patriots and saved the collaborator. [They] felt the ending just wasn't right,' says Chen Deli, a 40-year-old Chengdu businesswoman.

Yet Fan believes the film merely reflected a more complex reality, while adding he does not like it. 'There were all sorts of so-called traitors and, in fact, many of them weren't traitors at all,' he says. 'A lot of them were just people trying to survive, people who provided water or electricity or fixed the roads or taught in school. You cannot call these people traitors.'

Fan has been collecting documents and artefacts about collaborators and, as soon as he has enough money, plans to open the first museum dedicated to them, part of his ambitious Jianchuan Museum Cluster. Fan has spent about 500 million yuan (HK$549 million) on 10 museums, which include one dedicated to the Cultural Revolution; one to the Flying Tigers - the volunteer American air corps that fought the Japanese for China and suffered heavy casualties; a museum about the Sichuanese army; and one focusing on Chinese prisoners of war, another badly neglected pocket of history.

Most explosively, Fan has gathered thousands of personal diaries from the Cultural Revolution, which he cannot exhibit. 'I need to wait at least until the writers have died,' he says, without adding a self-evident truth - that he also has to wait until the government lets him. For now, the diaries stand in long, dusty rows on rickety bookshelves. 'There's everything in there. Who did what to whom. How I killed my teacher. Some of the writers were so young.'

But first, Fan is writing a book on collaborators, to be finished by the end of the year. It will test politically sensitive waters. 'I don't know if people are ready to hear about this,' he says. 'But I'll publish it then see what they say.'

Fan has been collecting on the subject since 1999 and has thousands of little-seen photographs gathered from old magazines and antiques stores across Japan. He also has dozens of sentencing documents handed out to individual collaborators by the early Communist government after 1949, heaps of yellowed, loose papers that lie higgledy-piggledy on a shelf.

Officially, the number of collaborators stands at 500,000 and includes top politicians such as Wang Jingwei and Tao Xisan in Nanjing; Su Xiwen in Shanghai; and Liu Zhaoqing in Zhanjiang, as well as the ranks of the pro-Japanese quisling army, the Weijun.

While Fan pooh-poohs that number - his figure of 2 million includes all the military and paramilitaries, members of local self-governing committees and politicians - publicly, he is trying to minimise the shock. 'Let's say 1 million because people can more easily accept that number; it's conservative.'

Zhang, the Nanjing professor, concurs with Fan's assessment. 'There must have been more than a million,' he says.

Policeman and convicted spy Li Yannai was one. Arrested in Beijing in May 1949, aged 43, Li's multi-page sentencing document reveals he 'gathered intelligence along the railway line', and contains specifics: in 1942, Li arrested five underground members of the Communist Eighth Route Army in Tangshan, near Beijing, and handed them over to the Japanese for torture. Li was sentenced to death in 1951 but the verdict was later suspended, commuted to a lifetime's hard labour.

Fan's collection is still small, taking up just seven shelves in the depository. As well as scores of stories such as Li's, it includes puppet government stamps, military badges and other everyday household objects, such as 'loyalty certificates', which people needed to travel and conduct business. Possessing one did not automatically mark a person out as a traitor but some chose not to apply for the document.

Historians say the sheer scale of the collaboration cries out for a reassessment of the past, but warn comparisons with France only go so far.

'The Chinese had a much weaker sense of the nation and didn't think of their country. They thought firstly of themselves and of their families,' says Zhang. 'It was a very different situation from that in, say, France, which was a nation state.'

He says a closer look at the past is justified for two main reasons. 'First, we need to distinguish between right and wrong on an individual basis ... And, second, we need a moral examination of why people did it. Some, a very small number of people, were forced to collaborate. But actually the great majority volunteered, for money or power, to aggrandise themselves or their families.'

So deeply does anti-Japanese feeling run on the mainland that even to take the subject of collaborators seriously and re-examine its basic precepts is controversial. According to Canadian historian Timothy Brook, Shaw professor at Oxford University and author of a groundbreaking study titled Collaboration, 'Many Chinese are unprepared to look behind their collective memory of suffering and resistance to ask what most people in the occupied zone did during the war. Compared to the French, the Chinese are at a much earlier stage in coming to terms with their occupation.'

Says writer Zhao: 'The whole thought process just isn't here yet. This society is still very unfree and undemocratic. In Europe they had openness and democracy after the end of the war and it still took

30 years for France to face up to its collaborationist past. Who knows how long it will take China, if it

ever does?'

In this nascent movement, opinions differ widely. Fan is not prepared to go as far as Zhao or Lin, who argue that even top collaborator Wang, who ran the pro-Japanese national government in Nanjing, was a patriot. Zhao is currently seeking funding for a film about the Japanese surrender in 1945 while Japan-based Lin is the author of the internet essay 'The Real Wang Jingwei'.

Wang sacrificed his reputation and finally his life to protect the people from the Japanese invaders' rage, according to Zhao. Wang was seriously injured in an assassination attempt in 1935. He never fully recovered and died in Japan in 1944.

Zhao, who divides his time between the United States and China, believes that once in power, Wang tried to protect the people from the Japanese army's worst excesses. 'There were no more Nanking Massacres after Wang set up his puppet government in Nanjing. Isn't that the best definition of a patriot?' he asks.

Such an argument bothers Fan. 'No, no, that's not true. Wang was a traitor. It's very clear,' he says.

In an attempt to introduce some grey into what is largely seen as a black-and-white argument, Fan has constructed four categories of 'traitor', of whom he believes only the top two - people who were motivated either by power or greed - should be condemned. The others, he says, were people trying to survive and should be forgiven by history.

Undeniably, Wang was a complex character. Once the designated successor to the republican Sun Yat-sen, he led the left wing of the Kuomintang before falling out with Chiang Kai-shek. In 1938 he offered to co-operate with Japan and in 1940 was made head of a national puppet government in Nanjing.

After the war, Wang's daughter and granddaughter, the latter aged just two, were thrown into 'water jail' for two years, a form of torture whereby the victim is forced to sit in deep, cold water. The family fled to Hong Kong in 1947. Today, Wang Jingwei's daughter Wang Chorfu, 93, son-in-law He Manghang, 92, and granddaughter Wu, 64, live in Parsippany, New Jersey, in the US.

Wu believes her grandfather is a deeply misunderstood man. 'You can love your country and do what he did,' she says. 'He did not want to see the young people die. So what do you do? You stall, you manoeuvre [with the enemy]. It was all very well for everyone to run away to Chongqing [where the Kuomintang set up a war-time capital] but many people could not run. They were too poor to go anywhere. My grandfather went back to protect them.

'I remember I grew up in shame and rage. [Now] all I want is an unbiased view of history.'

Mostly, historians stress that it was a difficult and ambiguous time. In the preface to his book, Brook poses a rhetorical question that starkly presents the difficulties of choice. 'A foreign power has invaded ... The innocent are dying and no one is immune from the touch of violence. You are someone whose position, ambition or sense of public service prompts you to step forward and assert leadership in troubled times. Civilian agents of the invading army appear in your town, at your door, seeking your co-operation. What do you do?'

Zhang disagrees with Wu's judgment of her grandfather but agrees the era is ripe for reassessment. 'There's a lot of simplistic, black-and-white stuff out there about it. People get things wrong and they shout 'traitor!' but it's all emotion-based, not based on historical proof. Yet, at the same time, there were so many traitors and no one wants to think about it. If China were to be in such a situation again, how would we deal with it?'

Says Fan: 'Our country squared things with the traitors in a very, very incomplete manner. We haven't looked at the cultural reasons behind it. In fact, we haven't thought about it at all.'