China seizes on (part of) its history

Liu Linsheng placed bouquets of yellow and white chrysanthemums beside a sewage-choked creek and gazed over a wasteland where dozens of Chinese soldiers were bayonetted to death. “This is a murder scene,” he said, pointing to a memorial stone he has erected at the heart of this northern mining hub about 500km southwest of Beijing.

The names of those responsible for the massacre had been carved into the rock in blood-red characters: the Japanese army chiefs who had run the place Liu calls “China’s Auschwitz”.

Nearly eight decades ago, as many as 100 000 Chinese civilians and soldiers, including Liu’s father, were captured and confined in the Taiyuan concentration camp by Japan’s imperial army. Tens of thousands died, claimed Liu, a retired professor who has written a book about the prison that takes the name of the Nazi’s most infamous death camp.

“Some died from starvation and some from illness; some were beaten to death while others died working in places such as the coalmines,” he said. “The ones who suffered some of the cruellest deaths were those stabbed to death by Japanese soldiers’ bayonets.”

The Taiyuan camp opened its gates in 1938, one year after fighting between China and Japan officially broke out, and closed in 1945 when the war ended.

Stomach-churning evils
It witnessed stomach-churning evils during those years, Liu claimed. Female soldiers were raped or used for target practice by Japanese troops; vivisections were performed on prisoners; biological weapons were tested on unlucky interns.

Yet, for all those horrors, the prison camp’s existence has been almost entirely wiped from China’s history books. Most of its low-rise brick buildings were bulldozed in the 1950s and replaced by a grimy industrial estate that is to be demolished after years of abandonment.

Two surviving cellblocks, surrounded by clusters of high-rise apartments and derelict factories, were used as stables and then storerooms before falling into disrepair. Teams of woodlice patrol empty corridors once policed by Japanese guards.

“Many people don’t even know that this place exists,” said Zhao Ameng, 60, whose father, a soldier named Zhao Peixian, fled the camp in 1940 as he was being taken to a nearby wasteland for execution.

That may be about to change. With Beijing holding a massive military parade this past week to mark 70 years since Japan’s surrender, the camp’s story is being revived as part of a Communist Party push to exalt its role in the war effort.

Party officials have instructed builders in Taiyuan to turn its ruins into a “patriotic education centre” where China’s sacrifices and Japan’s sins can be remembered.

All across China, similar memorials are springing up for the commemorations. Museums, art exhibitions and monuments linked to the “people’s war of resistance against Japanese aggression” have thrown their doors open to visitors from East to West.

A website is publishing daily confessions from Japanese war criminals who admit to ghoulish and barbaric acts, including torture sessions, rapes and strangulations.

Politically charged parade
“Forgetting history is a betrayal,” Chinese President Xi Jinping said in the run-up to the politically charged parade that Western leaders, including United States President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron, shunned. China’s decision to restore the Taiyuan prison camp comes as a relief to the children of those who suffered there.

Liu, whose father, Liu Qinxiao, was a 27-year-old officer in Mao’s Eighth Route Army when he was captured, has spent nearly a decade campaigning for its few remaining buildings to be protected. But until this year his pleas had fallen on deaf ears, something he and Zhao Ameng blame on powerful real estate developers and officials hoping to cash in on the land.

The precise details of what happened in “China’s Auschwitz” remain blurred. There have been no major academic studies of the camp, partly because of the Communist Party’s long-standing reluctance to glorify the efforts of its Nationalist enemies who did the bulk of the fighting against the Japanese and held Taiyuan when it fell to the Japanese in 1938.

Rana Mitter, the author of a book about the war in China, called Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945, said it was impossible to confirm “every single accusation of every single atrocity” perpetrated by Japanese forces in places such as Taiyuan.

“[But] we know through very objective research from Japanese, Chinese and Western researchers … that the Japanese conquest of China in 1937 involved tremendous amounts of brutality, not just in Nanjing, which is the famous case, but actually plenty of other places.”

Deliberately infected

For all Beijing’s new-found interest in the story of “China’s Auschwitz”, its retelling is unlikely to extend beyond 1945. During the Cultural Revolution, the Communist Party accused many surviving prisoners of collaborating with the Japanese and branded them traitors.

Liu’s father, who had been imprisoned from December 1940 to June 1941, was packed off to a labour camp in Inner Mongolia during the 1960s and returned a broken man.

“My father always said, ‘The Japanese kept me in jail for seven months and the Communist Party kept me in jail for seven years,’?” he said. “He felt it was very unfair … He felt he had done nothing wrong. I think one of the reasons he died so young – at just 73 – was that he was badly and unfairly treated in the Cultural Revolution.”

During a recent visit to the camp’s ruins, Liu wandered through two crumbling shacks where builders were removing armfuls of rotting timber.

“[The prisoners] would sleep on the floor – one next to the other,” he said, pointing to what was once a cramped cell.

Zhao, whose father died in 2007, recognised that the killing in the Taiyuan prison was not on the same scale as Auschwitz where more than one million people were killed, mostly Jews, but “the brutality committed in this camp was as bad as in Auschwitz, if not worse”.

With the afternoon sun beating down, Liu and Zhao made their way to the banks of Taiyuan’s River Sha and tossed cartons of luxury Zhonghua cigarettes into its fetid waters in homage to their fallen and forgotten fathers.

“They were prisoners of war. They weren’t captured at home. They weren’t captured while working in the fields. They were captured on the battlefield fighting our enemies,” said Liu.

“Some of them were wounded, some of them were surrounded by enemies and some of them were captured after firing their last round of bullets. They became prisoners of war against their own will. Can you say they are not heroes?” – © Guardian News & Media 2015

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

Covid-19 stems ‘white’ gold rush

The pandemic hit abalone farmers fast and hard. Prices have dropped and backers appear to be losing their appetite for investing in the delicacy

China’s resource-for-infrastructure deals

Are RFIs a viable model for aiding Africa’s economic development?

China blamed for Zambia’s debt, but the West’s banks and agencies enabled it

The narratives about the African country’s debt crisis are being used as fodder in geopolitical battles

Muddying the waters in the Musina Makhado economic zone

The public participation process on the environmental impact assessment for the area’s special economic zone has been shambolic

How US foreign policy under Donald Trump has affected Africa

Lesotho has been used as a microcosm in this article to reflect how the foreign policy has affected Africa

We should not ignore Guinea’s constitutional coup

Citizens have for a year protested against the president seeking a third term in office despite a two-term limit. Many have been killed — and 90 more people died in this week’s crackdown

Subscribers only

Dozens of birds and bats perish in extreme heat in...

In a single day, temperatures in northern KwaZulu-Natal climbed to a lethal 45°C, causing a mass die-off of birds and bats

Q&A Sessions: Frank Chikane on the rainbow where colours never...

Reverend Frank Chikane has just completed six years as the chairperson of the Kagiso Trust. He speaks about corruption, his children’s views and how churches can be mobilised

More top stories

Corruption forces health shake-up in Gauteng

Dr Thembi Mokgethi appointed as new health MEC as premier seeks to stop Covid-19 malfeasance

Public-private partnerships are key for Africa’s cocoa farmers

Value chain efficiency and partnerships can sustain the livelihoods of farmers of this historically underpriced crop

Battery acid, cassava sticks and clothes hangers: We must end...

COMMENT: The US’s global gag rule blocks funding to any foreign NGOS that perform abortions, except in very limited cases. The Biden-Harris administration must rescind it

Eskom could be fined R5-million over pollution at Kendal power...

The power utility is being taken to court by the Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries in a first-of-its-kind criminal prosecution

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…