Xi’s Costly Obsession With Security
How a Quest for Control Threatens China’s Economic Growth
WE who live in democratic states find it hard to understand why it is that people in authoritarian states have in the last decade given up their liberties with so very little struggle. We generally like to believe that they have been tricked into surrender and that, given some help and encouragement from outside, when the time is ripe they will strive to regain the freedom they have lost, will work and fight if need be for a kind of government comparable to our own. In extreme cases we suppose that the economic difficulties and political repression prevalent in these totalitarian states must have produced a potential revolutionary force, and that therefore only a little more hardship, a little more tyranny, are required to bring about an uprising. This belief may turn out to be correct; but so far there is very scanty evidence for it. In authoritarian countries there is no chance for the individual foreign observer to gain accurate knowledge of what the people are thinking. He cannot carry out a poll of opinion. He can only guess at public sentiment from a few haphazard samples; and since he can only guess at what people feel, he is not likely to be a useful prophet as to how they will act.
All these obstacles to political and social diagnosis are multiplied when we come to deal with a country like Japan, with its acute differences in tradition, language, thought and behavior. This no doubt is why the evidence which comes from foreign observers as to the present political temper and aspirations of the Japanese people is extremely various and contradictory. The foreign policy of the Japanese Government is clear enough, and it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that the issues between it and the governments of democratic states are now strategical rather than political. What is not so clear is the internal situation in Japan. To understand that, it is necessary for us to rid our minds of a number of misconceptions which arise because we think in terms of our own vocabulary when we discuss Far Eastern affairs. We are inclined to postulate the existence of a numerous class of "liberals," and we are misled by our own use of the word "liberal" into supposing that there is in Japan a school of political thought which approves of democratic institutions and thus somehow corresponds, if only in miniature, to those great majorities in the United States or Great Britain which believe in representative government, in freedom of speech and thought, and in a great measure of individual enterprise. A further assumption, no less unjustified, allows us to picture this liberal element in Japanese life as a force hostile to what is called the "military party," as prepared at the appropriate moment to reverse the present totalitarian trend and by some kind of revolutionary process to set up a new, enlightened and prosperous régime with which the democracies can talk business.
There is little in Japan's past history to justify such assumptions. It is true enough that since the Restoration of 1868 there have been short phases of liberalism in internal politics in Japan, but it was liberalism of a type long obsolete in Occidental countries, and events have shown that it had in it no power of growth because it was a borrowed thing, out of harmony with Japan's traditional ways of thinking.
It is by examining those traditional ways that we are most likely to arrive at some knowledge of what the people of Japan are likely to be thinking today. No official reticence can conceal history from the observer. The facts are quite clear. From 1615 or thereabouts Japan was ruled by a feudal oligarchy, which anticipated in many respects the methods of government used by modern totalitarian states. The distinguishing features were there -- the rule of a self-constituted élite, the disabilities imposed upon certain classes, the restriction of personal liberty, the sumptuary laws, the monopolies, the censorship, the secret police, and the doctrine that the individual exists for the State. When in 1868 this régime was overthrown it was replaced not by a popular government but by a powerful bureaucracy which -- with the adaptations made necessary by Japan's entry into the modern world of international commerce and industry -- perpetuated the essential features of totalitarianism. Lest this should be thought a fanciful reading of Japan's political history, it may be well to quote a Japanese authority. Mr. Shiratori, formerly Japanese Ambassador to Rome, and a vigorous proponent of the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo pact, wrote in 1938:
The tide has turned against that liberalism and democracy that once swept over the nation. The once widely accepted theory of government which sees in parliament the real center of power has now been completely rejected and the country is fast reverting to totalitarianism, which has been the fundamental principle of Japan's national life for the past thirty centuries. . . . It makes our hearts warm to see ideas that have influenced our race for centuries in the past embodied in the systems of modern states of Europe.
After making full discount for the extravagance of language which seems to be needed for the expression of totalitarian thought, one can perceive in these statements some useful evidence. In the first place, it is to be noted that Mr. Shiratori was not speaking for the so-called military party. It is a mistake to suppose that there is a split between military and civilian opinion in Japan. Certainly the army has played the greatest part in the development of a planned economy for war purposes, and though opinion is by no means uniform throughout the fighting services the army has been the most important single body in the promotion of a certain kind of national socialist doctrine. But totalitarian ways of thinking have for years past been gaining strength in other branches of government. They have strong adherents in the Departments of the Interior and Education, while the planned and controlled economy which must form the basis of any totalitarian state was originated in the Department of Commerce shortly after the Manchurian adventure of 1931. It is therefore fair to say that for the best part of a decade the most active, if not the most numerous, elements in the bureaucracy have been consciously building up a totalitarian system. The process was hastened, as it was facilitated, by the exigencies of war; but it cannot be said that it encountered any effective opposition either from within the official class or from the parliamentarians who might have been expected to resist it. The bankers and industrialists did, it is true, make some mild objections from time to time, but they retreated little by little and are today under effective control. They have not, perhaps, been so fully subjected to official orders as the German industrialists, but for practical purposes they are now integrated in the machinery of state.
One may safely say of the political and economic itinerary followed by Japan since 1931 that among the ruling classes of Japan there were undoubtedly differences of opinion as to method and timing, as to the route and the speed, but no fundamental disagreement as to destination -- Japanese hegemony over Eastern Asia. As for the general public, it was helpless. For even if it had had the will to resist, lacking an effective parliamentary system it had no means of bringing pressure to bear upon the Government. But there is nothing to show that the Japanese people did at any particular period in fact desire to resist. The building up of the now almost perfected system of autocratic government was a gradual process, and the points at which resistance might suitably have been offered were not obvious to a public which, far from being in the habit of fighting for its rights, was traditionally disciplined and obedient. Even in a highly developed democracy considerable alertness and insight on the part of the public are required to detect a crucial situation in internal affairs, and those qualities are usually possessed by leaders rather than by the rank and file. In Japan there is no habit of mistrust of authority, no strong disposition to criticize, no protestant tradition, but rather an old ingrained spirit of conformity. Consequently there has not developed in the past an effective body of popular opinion or an experience of popular leadership. So that, even supposing the present rulers of Japan to have imposed their new system on the country against the popular will, it is difficult to imagine how that popular will could have expressed itself in action. Neither the political nor the social traditions of Japan have been such as to encourage ideological revolt.
This is not to say that the Japanese people are docile and obedient to the point of timidity, or even of indifference to political issues. Their history shows many instances where brave men have suffered misery and death in defense of their political or religious beliefs. But we should be deceiving ourselves if we thought that the present-day Japanese are fundamentally opposed to autocratic forms of government and are awaiting the day when they can reverse the current totalitarian trend and set up democratic institutions. The mass of the people have very little knowledge of what democracy means; and conversation with highly educated and enlightened Japanese of a liberal turn of mind usually reveals that, whatever dissatisfaction they may feel with the present régime, they would not propose as a remedy a further attempt to build up a parliamentary government, even of the nineteenth-century model, on a social foundation which is not suited to receive it. Such attempts have been made in the past, but have failed. Liberalism has never secured a firm foothold in Japan, and it has never, even in its short seasons of success, been a force working against an expansionist foreign policy. The truth seems to be that what we in our countries call a democratic outlook is organically related to Christianity; and perhaps it is not seriously falsifying the picture to say crudely that the essential difference between Japan and Western democracies is that Japan is not a Christian country. She has a highly developed social organism, supported by an admirable social ethic; but it emphasizes the duty of the citizen to the community, not the duty of the individual to himself, and still less the community's duties to the individual.
Given these conditions it is easy to understand how the Japanese people have now come to accept a form of government of which they do not necessarily approve. But it is not easy to judge the measure of their disapproval. Since the beginning of the war against China, they have been subjected to a gradually increasing degree of restriction and discomfort which today begins to amount to hardship -- but not to unbearable hardship. Some essential commodities including foodstuffs are rationed, and there are shortages of others. They have been harried by a propaganda campaign for "National Spiritual Mobilization" which seems not to have evoked any enthusiastic response. And they have to tolerate a great deal of petty regulation and interference exercised not only by officials but also by a vast army of private busybodies. There is a rigid censorship; there is even a high official whose title is Thought Controller. The powers of the police and the gendarmerie combined operate with something like the methods of the Gestapo, though not perhaps with its sinister and comprehensive efficiency; and in general there is a good deal of the espionage and secret denunciation which characterize life under autocracy.
On a priori grounds, therefore, one would be inclined to say that there must be a great deal of popular dissatisfaction in Japan, and no doubt there is. But there has so far been no sign whatever of active discontent, to say nothing of concerted popular opposition. Probably the best and briefest way to describe the frame of mind of the Japanese people today is to say that they accept the present situation reluctantly but patiently, that they have no great enthusiasm for the New Order at home, but that they are not disposed to resist it and, even if they were so disposed, they have not the necessary political training and experience or the requisite political leaders.
It must always be remembered in thinking of Japan that it is a geographically isolated country, inhabited by a very homogeneous people, and that these are factors which make for national unity, for solidarity against the outside world. Racial consciousness does not have to be created. It is there in the nature of things. And, although it is much to the credit of the Japanese that as individuals they are normally free from xenophobia and welcome foreigners in their country with spontaneous kindness, it cannot be denied that the very marked differences of race and color, language and tradition between them and Western peoples make it easy for a feeling of "encirclement" to arise, and for antagonism against Westerners to be fostered. Such feelings are indeed more natural and rational than the international hatreds that have been stimulated in Europe by far less defensible racial doctrines. One is thus bound to conclude that there is so far in Japan no sign of a trend of popular opinion or an intellectual movement which might in propitious circumstances produce a strong reaction against the present form of government because of the foreign policy now being pursued. Judging from past history one would be disposed to argue that Japan has shown herself immune to social revolution. The political reform of 1868 was in essence not a revolution but a restoration; it came from above and not from below and as a social revolution it was incomplete, if not abortive. Since that date there have been a few small popular risings, but these were very limited in scope and should properly be described as sporadic local riots rather than as national movements. They certainly cannot be taken as evidence that there is a potential factor of social revolution in the temper of the Japanese public. The rising of May 1932 was to some extent agrarian in origin, but essentially it was a reactionary putsch. The attempted coup d'état of February 1936 was definitely a military mutiny with political aims; far from having any popular origin, it was stimulated by the results of a parliamentary election, which were thought by certain military groups to be a verdict against the costly expansionist policy promoted by the army.
It would appear then that the present strains upon the political, economic and social structure of Japan are not sufficient in kind or in intensity to provoke any hostile popular reaction; and if a reaction is to come it is improbable that it will be other than a popular reaction. Other forces that might, at one time or another, have resisted Japan's march along the totalitarian road seem definitely to have conformed, or at least to have abandoned any hope of stemming the advance. The first position which the liberals might have defended was provided by a constitutional issue as to the powers of the Diet. It centered on the so-called "organic theory," which maintained that Parliament exercised its functions as an independent organ of the State and not as an instrument of the Emperor. The chief proponent of this theory was a courageous liberal professor, Dr. Minobe, who was attacked by reactionary elements in the government, deprived of his seat in the Diet and his chair at the University, while his books were banned. When this battle was lost by the liberals of the academic and parliamentary worlds, the purely juridical obstacles to the development of an authoritarian state were swept away. A similar surrender was forced upon the leading industrialists and bankers, who submitted to successive steps in a planned economy which in the end left them denuded of most of the power which they had formerly held. Since this class favored laisser-faire principles -- which obviously could not survive under the degree of regulation of manufacturing, trade and foreign exchange required for the prosecution of the war -- it was destined sooner or later to abandon its position.
As for the bureaucracy, its older members were as a rule reluctant to go along with the army leaders, who were all for rapid and drastic changes, each of them a step towards a centralized, corporate state designed principally for waging war. They struggled and temporized, but little by little they gave way to the new forces, some of them explaining rather apologetically that it was a mistake to endanger national unity by clashing head-on with the extremists. The best thing, they felt, was to step aside and let the momentum of the radical movement exhaust itself. This "wave of the future" reading of political history in the making naturally ended in the complete victory of the forces which the liberals had not sufficient conviction and drive to check or even to moderate. The methods of jujitsu, when applied to politics, apparently do not work; a true resultant of opposed forces can be obtained only when opponents strike blow for blow, and thus hammer out a solution. All the same, it must be remembered that even had the cautious and liberal elements in the bureaucracy, in industry and finance and among the intelligentsia put up a fight they would have had to meet strong opposition within their own spheres, for the prospects of a new order attracted great numbers of ambitious young men, who were not only temperamentally disposed to vigorous action but were also tempted by the prospect of ousting their seniors, gaining promotion and exercising power.
Such liberal forces as might have stood out against the new leaders of Japan are therefore now in retreat. Some have merely gone to ground, some have been won over, and others are cooperating, unwillingly perhaps and with private reservations, but coöperating none the less. Consequently, there is effective unity on the home front in Japan today. The question then arises: What will be the reaction of the Japanese people if further strains are imposed upon them by further overseas adventures? This is not an easy question to answer for it at once involves us in speculation as to what Japan's plans are. However, we may assume one of two things: either she will continue her southward expansion so gradually as not to involve herself in the European war; or she will become a direct participant in that conflict, thereby turning the Pacific into a belligerent zone.
Let us assume for a moment that she chooses the first alternative and preserves her non-belligerency. In that event the problem is mainly economic, and the reaction of the Japanese people will depend largely upon the nation's economic balance sheet as it affects their life and work. The material cost to Japan of her current program, which presumably does not involve any excessive new burden of expenditure, is likely to be offset by certain material as well as psychological gains. The shortage of rice resulting from two bad crops can be made good by imports from Indo-China and Thailand, and other advantages of this nature will accrue from her growing influence in those regions. Moreover, there is some reason to believe that her immense investments in Manchuria are at last beginning to show a return, for it is reported that promising iron-ore deposits are now being worked and that the exploitation of certain other supplies from Manchuria as well as China is being better organized. It is true that embargoes and the loss of foreign trade because of the war in Europe have seriously damaged Japan's economic fabric; but it looks as if good temporary repairs had been made. We may therefore expect, in the absence of any strong evidence to the contrary, that so long as Japan maintains her non-belligerency she will have no great difficulty in supplying her people with an adequate minimum of commodities on the simple and inexpensive standard to which they are conditioned. After all, this is an elementary precaution which any efficient government must take; and despite some blunders, such as a needless irritation of public sentiment in the shape of rather silly sumptuary rules, it has gradually schooled Japanese people during the last few years to accept wartime discomforts and annoyances which, until recent months at least, had not yet reached the degree of hardship already being suffered without complaint by other nations in far more desperate plights. Judging by past events, what might possibly goad the Japanese masses into some kind of revolt would be a grave food shortage definitely attributable to mistaken government policies. But of this there seems little likelihood.
As for psychological fatigue and sheer war-weariness, one guess is as good as another. Yet there is no obvious reason why one should expect the Japanese people to break under a strain which by the most up-to-date standards of frightfulness is mild indeed. If the plans of the Japanese Government go wrong, if it should turn out that the gaps in the national economy cannot be repaired by drawing upon supplies in Southeastern Asia -- where negotiations are now going on -- then a new set of domestic conditions would arise and the people might justly become angry with their rulers and turn upon them. But all this is mere speculation, and nobody can foretell what form the popular reaction might take. It might easily produce not a popular uprising but a still more drastic and repressive government.
The case is different if we assume that Japan becomes involved in a large-scale war in the Pacific without first extricating herself from China. But here also questions of strategy rather than of politics are at issue, for the degree of strain to which Japan's economic and social structure would be subjected must depend upon the nature of the conflict. It is for strategists to predict what form that conflict would take, and what military and economic results it would produce. On these points a layman's views are of little value. Should the struggle develop as a distant and protracted blockade of Japan, it might in the long run damage her internal economy enough to produce violent opposition to the present régime. But nobody who is aware of the loyalty and unity of the Japanese people will expect them, under those circumstances, to crack under any but the most intolerable strain. Unless and until such a point were reached, the effect of hostile action against Japan would be to close the ranks of the Japanese. As evidence on this point it is useful to recall that, as the war against China developed, the Japanese authorities used strong propaganda to direct popular animosity, not against the Chinese, but against third Powers, notably Great Britain. They knew that there was no national enthusiasm for the war against China but only a disciplined resignation to it; but they also knew that they could stimulate war feeling by crying that Japan was in reality being attacked by the British. The anti-British campaigns, which have grown in intensity as the war has dragged on, cannot be fully explained on any other grounds.
Should hostilities develop into large-scale naval actions, their results would no doubt speedily determine the fate of the present Japanese Government. For it is clear that while it would gain strength in direct proportion to its success in successfully resisting enemy attacks, so also would it fall if Japan were defeated. It would be rapidly ejected, being perhaps replaced by an administration more popular and representative; but it might just as likely be succeeded by an emergency government of anything but popular complexion. One cannot judge of the strength of political forces until they have been tested in political conflict, any more than one can judge of the strength of armies until they have given battle.
From the arguments set forth above it would appear that we cannot forecast in the near future any important change in the policy of the Japanese Government because of the pressure of public opinion. There may be modifications here and there in policy at home and abroad, and some of these may be dictated by regard for popular sentiment; but they will be only the minor concessions of a prudent autocracy concerned to maintain a united home front, and not changes made at popular instigation. Similarly, we may conclude that, so long as hostilities are in progress, the Japanese people will remain united even under very great strain. It would be unwise to count upon a social revolution in Japan to bring about her military defeat. A military defeat might well contribute to a social revolution -- but that is a vastly different matter. We have very little precedent for judging what form such a social revolution would take. It might include violence and civil disturbance; but it might equally well be achieved by one of those feats of compromise for which the Japanese have a remarkable aptitude. This is all that can be safely predicated of Japan's future political development, save that the defeat of totalitarian states in Europe will be more cogent than any other argument in persuading Japan to revise her present principles of government.