Category Archives: Asian

February 21st – Nixon visits China

Nixon meets Mao in Beijing, February 21st, 1972.

Nixon meets Mao in Beijing, February 21st, 1972.

On this day in 1972, President Richard Nixon visited the People’s Republic of China, marking the first time an American president had visited Communist China. Nixon’s visit marked the end of almost 25 years of separation between the United States and Mainland China (= Communist China/People’s Republic of China), and led to improved relations between the two countries. The president’s week-long trip to Beijing, Shanghai, and Hangzhou was described by Nixon himself as “the week that changed the world”.

Ever since the Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the United States recognized the government in Taiwan, under the leadership of Chiang Kai-Shek, as the sole government of China. American diplomatic recognition was extended only to Taiwan and not Mainland China. Ironically, Nixon, a politician who had made his career as being fervently anti-communist, recognized the need to improve relations with Mainland China during his presidency. Nixon and his National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, believed that opening to China would allow the Americans to gain further diplomatic leverage against the other communist great power, the Soviet Union, during the Cold War. Additionally, improving relations with Communist China was thought by Kissinger to aid in a quicker resolution to the Vietnam War. From his first day in the Oval Office, Nixon worked towards open communication with Mainland China.

From February 21st to 28th, 1972, Nixon made his historical trip to China, visiting Beijing, Shanghai, and Hangzhou.  Almost immediately after landing in Beijing on Air Force One, Nixon met with Chairman Mao for a one hour meeting. Upon being introduced to Nixon, Mao quipped, through a translator, to Nixon: “I believe our old friend Chiang Kai-Shek would not approve of this.” Allegedly, Mao told his doctor after his encounter with the American president that he found Nixon “forthright” and Kissinger “suspicious”. While not attending diplomatic meetings, Nixon got the chance to visit the Forbidden City, the Great Wall of China, and the Ming Dynasty Tombs. As American television journalists (over 100) followed President Nixon throughout his trip to China, many Americans were able to see on TV these Chinese landmarks as well as a glimpse into life in Communist China.

Later on in the week, the United States and Mainland China issued the Shanghai Communiqué. In the Communiqué, the two governments pledged to normalize relations between their two countries, agreed that there was only ‘one China’ and that Taiwan was part of that China (the wording was such that the United States did not necessarily recognize that Taiwan was part of Communist China however), and that American military installations on Taiwan would be cut back. In Shanghai, Nixon said the following of what the Communiqué meant:

“This was the week that changed the world, as what we have said in that Communiqué is not nearly as important as what we will do in the years ahead to build a bridge across 16,000 miles and 22 years of hostilities which have divided us in the past. And what we have said today is that we shall build that bridge.”

Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 paved the way for increased Sino-American foreign relations. In 1979, the American government officially switched its diplomatic recognition of China from Taipei to Beijing, ending official relations with Taiwan. Historians also credit Nixon’s visit for leading to increased economic ties that bind the two countries together today.

Here is a link to a film produced by the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library documenting President Nixon’s historic trip to China. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4cfsI4ZjTbU

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December 25th – Hong Kong surrendered to the Japanese

The Hong Kong Memorial Wall located in Ottawa, Ontario, to honour the Canadian troops that fought to defend Hong Kong during the Second World War. On one side are the names of soldiers from the Royal Rifles of Canada, and on the other side, the soldiers of the Winnipeg Grenadiers.

The Hong Kong Memorial Wall located in Ottawa, Ontario, to honour the Canadian troops that fought to defend Hong Kong during the Second World War. On one side are the names of soldiers from the Royal Rifles of Canada, and on the other side, the soldiers of the Winnipeg Grenadiers.

On this day in 1941, the British crown colony of Hong Kong fell to Japanese forces. After seventeen and a half intense days of fighting by Canadian, British, and Indian troops and exhausting their ammunition, food and water, the Governor of Hong Kong surrounded the colony to the Japanese on Christmas Day.

Believing that Hong Kong would be unable to hold upon a Japanese attack, Winston Churchill and the British government had pulled out most of the British forces from the colony. A token British force was left in Hong Kong, and to reinforce the Allied garrison, the Canadian government was called upon to supply men. In the Autumn of 1941, two Canadian battalions (almost 2000 men in total) were sent over to Hong Kong from Vancouver, the Winnipeg Grenadiers and the Royal Rifles of Canada. Both units had little training or combat experience, yet within a short span of time, would soon find they were thrown into the heat of battle.

The Japanese invasion of Hong Kong began on the same day as the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7th, 1941. Japanese troops swept down from the Chinese mainland and into Hong Kong territory. Japanese forces moved quickly through the New Territories and Kowloon (the portions of Hong Kong on the Chinese mainland), forcing Allied troops to retreat to across the bay and onto Hong Kong Island. Allied troops were simply outnumbered (14000 troops to 52000 troops) and outgunned, and on Christmas Day, 1941, the Governor of Hong Kong, Sir Mark Aitchison Young, surrendered the crown colony to the Japanese at the Peninsula Hong Kong hotel. This day has since been known in Hong Kong as “Black Christmas”.

Hong Kong would remain occupied by the Japanese until August 30th, 1945, where the populace endured horrendous treatment by their Japanese rulers. Canadian, British, and other Commonwealth POWs were sent to northern Japan and kept in Hong Kong, where they were worked literally to death in labour camps and submitted to cruel treatment by the Japanese captors. The Allied dead from Hong Kong, including Canadian troops, are mainly interred at the Sai Wan Military Cemetery and Stanley Military Cemetery. Of the 1975 Canadians who sailed from Vancouver in the autumn of 1941, more than 550 would never make it back home.

Though the Canadian involvement on the Second World War in Europe (e.g. the Battle of the Atlantic, Dieppe, Italy, D-Day, the Netherlands), few know of Canada’s involvement in Hong Kong. In fact, the first Canadian ground soldier killed during the Second World War was at Hong Kong. The first Victoria Cross (the highest military decoration to Commonwealth troops) given to a Canadian during the Second World War was awarded to John Robert Osborn of the Winnipeg Grenadiers. Upon seeing a Japanese grenade roll into the bunker where Osborn and his fellow men were, Osborn jumped on the grenade, covering it with his helmet, sacrificing himself and saving the lives of 10 other Canadian soldiers in the bunker. Military service animals were not exempt either from receiving medals. Gander, a Newfie, was posthumously awarded the Dickin Medal, the “animals’ Victoria Cross” in 2000. Gander, assigned with the Royal Rifles of Canada, received the Dickin Medal for taking a Japanese grenade thrown at his soldiers and running with it towards the enemy, dying in the explosion but saving the lives of his fellow Canadian.

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December 20th – Portugal returns Macau back to China

The Macau handover ceremony from Portugal to China, December 20th, 1999.

The Macau handover ceremony from Portugal to China, December 20th, 1999.

On this day in 1999, Portugal returned Macau back to the People’s Republic of China, ending 442 years of formal Portuguese rule over that colony (1557 – 1999). Macau was the last and last European colony on the Asian continent.

In the mid-16th century, during Portugal’s golden age of empire and commerce, Portugal sought a port to conduct trade in Asia and China. With the permission of the Ming Dynasty government officials, Portugal established a trading base on the southeastern coast of China in 1557 on Macau, near the city of Canton (known today as Guangzhou), paying an annual rental fee of 20 kilograms of silver. Though the Portuguese were paying rent on Macau, at this point in time Portugal did not hold sovereignty over Macau, as the territory had not been officially handed over to Portugal, but rather, rented. It was not until 1887 that the Chinese and Portuguese governments signed the “Sino-Portuguese Treaty of Amity and Commerce”, which gave Portugal the right to occupy Portugal in perpetuity.

After the downfall of the Estado Novo and Antonio Salazar’s fascist government in 1974, Portugal proceeded to relinquish its overseas possessions, including Macau. In 1987, an agreement was signed between the Chinese and Portuguese governments to return Macau back to China. Similar to the agreement in 1984 concerning the British handover of Hong Kong back to China, Macau was to be handed over to China on December 20th, 1999 as a “Special Administrative Region” (SAR for short).

As an SAR, Macau is permitted to retain its institutions and system of governance that it had under Portuguese rule for fifty years after the handover (from 1999 to 2049). As a consequence, tremendous differences exist between Macau and China today. Portuguese remains an official language of Macau, has its own parliamentary system (democracy exists in Macau), a legal system based upon Portuguese law, and its own currency (the Macanese pataca). China retains sovereignty over Macau however, as China is in charge of Macau’s foreign affairs and its defense. Today, Macau is often known as the “Las Vegas of the Far East”, with its many casinos attracting visitors from nearby Hong Kong, Mainland China, and other parts of Asia.

 

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December 13th – The Rape of Nanjing begins

The Nanjing Massacre Memorial

The Nanjing Massacre Memorial

On this day in 1937, the city of Nanjing (then the capital of China) fell to Japanese forces, beginning a six-week period known as the ‘Nanjing Massacre’ or the ‘Rape of Nanjing’. During this period, hundreds of thousands of civilians and unarmed soldiers were murdered by Japanese soldiers, with rape and looting rampant throughout the city. Historical estimates of the number of those killed in the massacre are roughly 250000 to 300000.

This topic is highly exhaustive; therefore, I could not write a complete blog post that would befit this event. Rather, I will give a general synopsis of what happened and how it currently impacts geopolitics in East Asia.

While the Second World War started in Europe in 1939, war was already well underway in Asia. Starting in 1937 (some would argue as far back as 1931 however), China and Japan were at war, following the Japanese invasion of the Chinese mainland. By December 1937, the Japanese had surrounded the Chinese capital of Nanjing (which literally means “southern capital”, as opposed to Beijing, the “northern capital”). Although it remains difficult to determine the motives for the Nanjing Massacre, some historians have claimed that the heavy casualties sustained by the Japanese army in the recent Battle for Shanghai angered many Japanese soldiers, who then wished to exact revenge. As well, the Japanese military had become indoctrinated to believe that the fight against China was a “holy war”, one that the racially superior Japanese would win and conquer over the lowly Chinese.

Regardless of motivation, the Nanjing Massacre began in earnest on December 13th, 1937. Unarmed Chinese soldiers were sent to dig their own graves, and shot en masse in them. Large-scale contests were held by the Japanese soldiers in the city to see who could be the first to behead 100 Chinese, both military and civilians. Mass-scale rape was also prevalent during this time, with an estimated 20000 women raped within the 6 weeks. Both the elderly and infants were not immune to victimization by the Japanese soldiers. There were also reports of forced incest during the Nanjing Massacre, where sons would be forced to rape their mothers, and fathers would rape their daughters. Women were often killed after their ordeals.

As the capital of China, Nanjing housed many Western foreigners and diplomats. These Westerners did their best to shelter and offer refuge to Chinese in their homes and in the international district of the city. John Rabe was the most well known of the foreigners in Nanjing at this time. A German businessman for Siemens, Rabe attempted to use his influence as a card-carrying member of the Nazi Party to save as many Chinese from the hands of the Japanese. It is estimated that Rabe rescued between 200000 to 250000 Chinese.

A recent movie was released in 2011 concerning the Rape of Nanjing. Flowers of War (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1410063/)stars Christian Bale as an American in Nanjing during the Massacre. Pretending to be a Catholic priest, Bale’s character takes in Chinese women seeking refuge from the Japanese at the Catholic convent. Here is the trailer to the film: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MV5rw3oTJMw.

The Nanjing Massacre has continued to have consequences on Chinese-Japanese relations. To this day, the Japanese government has refused to recognize the events in Nanjing as a “massacre”, believing the number of those killed in the city to be far below those commonly accepted by historians. As well, the Japanese had refused to acknowledge the atrocities perpetrated by Japanese soldiers through the six-week period. The dismissal of the Nanjing Massacre by the Japanese government has infuriated Chinese citizens and the Chinese government, and has drawn severe anti-Japanese sentiment amongst the Chinese populace. This refusal to recognize the Nanjing Massacre is an important source of tension that exists to this day between China and Japan.

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December 7th – Japanese forces attack Pearl Harbor

The U.S.S. Arizona exploding from bombs dropped by Japanese aerial forces

The U.S.S. Arizona exploding from bombs dropped by Japanese aerial forces

On this day in 1941, naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan attacked the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. December 7th, 1941 was, according to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a ‘date which will live in infamy’. The preemptive surprise attack at Pearl Harbor was undertaken by the Japanese forces with the hopes of neutralizing the American capacity to repel Japanese conquests in Southeast Asia. With 350 planes taking off from 6 aircraft carriers, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor sunk or damaged 4 battleships, 3 cruisers, 3 destroyers with approximately 2400 Americans killed and approximately 1300 injured. The attack on Pearl Harbor was simultaneous with Japanese attacks on the American held Philippines and British held Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaya.

Most people know the story behind the attack on Pearl Harbor (as popularized through the feature films Pearl Harbor and Tora, Tora, Tora!), so I will not elaborate any further. What many people do not know however is that the aerial attack on Pearl Harbor was not the first action on that day. Five Japanese submarines accompanied the Japanese task force being sent to attack Pearl Harbor. Upon coming within 20 kilometres of Pearl Harbor, the submarines launched midget submarines (smaller submarines meant to be piloted by a handful of sailors) to attack around 1:00 am. On 3:42 am, a Japanese midget submarine was sighted by the minesweeper Condor, and its location radioed in to the destroyer Ward. Shortly afterwards the Ward sank the Japanese midget submarine, marking the first shots fired by American forces in the Second World War. The sinking of this midget submarine occurred almost 4 hours before the first airplanes attacked the American fleet at Pearl Harbor. While the aerial bombardment on Pearl Harbor is often cited as the start of American involvement and entry into the Second World War, it is interesting to note that the Americans had engaged in combat with the Japanese earlier on that day.

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December 3rd – World’s worst industrial disaster occurs in Bhopal, India

Memorial in Bhopal commemorating the victims from the gas leak

Memorial in Bhopal commemorating the victims from the gas leak

On this day in 1984, a gas leak started at a pesticide plant, known today as the Bhopal Disaster. Located in the town of Bhopal in central India, the gas leak at this pesticide plant is considered the world’s worst industrial disaster, with almost 4000 deaths (16000 claimed) and almost 560000 injured.

Bhopal was home to a pesticide plant owned by the American company Union Carbide. As part of the pesticide manufacturing process, methyl isocyanate (MIC for short) was kept on site (42 tonnes worth, far beyond a controllable amount). While normal safety precautions would have helped ensure that the MIC was secure and protected from leakage, there were several problems with the plant. In an inspection of the plant prior to the disaster, thirty individual problems were found at Bhopal, including: filling the MIC in tanks far beyond recommended levels, the shut down of a refrigeration system that would prevent overheating, no night shift supervisors, and lack of gas scrubbers. This information was reported back to the company’s headquarters in America, however it was not communicated back to the plant managers in Bhopal. As well, technical manuals in the plant were written in English, completely incomprehensible to the staff at the plant. Despite these glaring concerns, nothing was done to rectify this impending disaster.

On the night of December 2nd and December 3rd, 1984, water entered the tank in which MIC was stored, resulting in an exothermic (giving off immense heat and energy) reaction that increased the pressure of the tank. This increase in pressure caused the release of 30 metric tons of MIC into the Bhopal’s atmosphere within one hour. Had the faulty safety mechanisms that were reported earlier been fixed, the release of MIC into Bhopal’s atmosphere could have probably been prevented. The effects of the gas on Bhopal’s citizens were immediate. Acute symptoms of MIC inhalation include tearing, a ‘burning throat’ sensation, coughing, vomiting, and irritation of the eyes. In the autopsies of victims who passed away from the gas exposure, fluid build up in the brain, failure of the kidneys and liver were documented. In total, approximately 500000 people were exposed to MIC from the plant. 200000 of the victims were below the age of 15, and 3000 were pregnant women. The stillbirth rate in Bhopal increased by 300%, and the newborn mortality rate increasing by 200%. In total, almost 16000 people died within the first two weeks of the exposure from MIC related injuries. Over 150000 people today are still dealing with the effects of this exposure almost 30 years ago, and the drinking water and soil of Bhopal remains toxic to this day.

Union Carbide has, to this day, denied negligence on its part concerning the disaster at Bhopal. Union Carbide has stated that the plant was subject to sabotage, claiming it was impossible for water to enter the tank under normal circumstances. Regardless, repair of the deficient safety procedures that were made aware to Union Carbide could have minimized the outcome of the situation, making this a mute point. Currently, there is a fight to try the CEO of Union Carbide at the time, Warren Anderson, in an Indian court to answer for the disaster, however America has refused to extradite Anderson to India.

Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain (2013) is a historical drama feature film on this disaster (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0839742/). Starring Martin Sheen, Mischa Barton and Kal Penn, the film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, and will be screened in North America in early 2014. Here is a trailer to the film: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=znvcQBua–w.

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December 2nd – Puyi, the last Emperor of China, ascends the throne

Poster for the biopic The Last Emperor (1987), a movie chronicling the life of Puyi

Poster for the biopic The Last Emperor (1987), a movie chronicling the life of Puyi, China’s final ruling monarch

On this day in 1908, China’s last Emperor, Puyi, ascended the throne. Only two years old when he became the Emperor of China, Puyi’s reign from 1908 to 1912 marked the end of imperial China, which lasted for over 2000 years.

Given the age of Puyi upon his ascension to the throne, Puyi’s father, Prince Chun, ruled over China as regent. A regent is one who “caretakes” for a government in place of an individual who is not capable of doing so at the time. This regency was to be short lived however. As an emperor of the Qing Dynasty, Puyi was Manchu in origin, not Han Chinese as the majority of his subjects were. This racial difference between the ruling Manchu class and the subject Han Chinese people was a source of tremendous tension in the Empire, as the Chinese resented being ruled by foreigners. As well, the Chinese Empire had been humiliated by the Western powers and Japan throughout the past century, particularly in the Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1901. The monetary reparations and territorial concessions made to these foreign powers highlighted the weakness of the Qing Dynasty and the failure of the Chinese Empire to adopt Westernizing reforms aggravated the situation.

In 1911, the Xinhai Revolution broke out in China, resulting in the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty, and in its place, the establishment of the Republic of China. Despite the formation of the Republic, for a little more than a decade, Puyi was granted the right to retain his imperial title, reside in the Forbidden City and receive a stipend from the government. This all ended in 1924, when, following a failed coup and restoration of the Emperor, Puyi was banished from the Forbidden City and became a regular citizen of China. No one was to ever live in the Forbidden City again, which had served as the imperial residence of Chinese emperors for almost 500 years.

Following the Japanese invasion of Manchuria (the northeastern part of modern China) in 1931, Puyi was installed as the emperor of a new Japanese puppet state, Manchukuo. During his time as a private citizen, Puyi harboured many pro-Japanese feelings, feeling resentment towards the Chinese republic for the end of the Qing Dynasty and prejudice towards the Manchu. While recognized as the ruler of Manchukuo, Puyi exercised little authority, with most decisions concerning Manchukuo and its military and economy made by the Japanese in Tokyo. Few states in the world recognized the independence of Puyi’s country, mostly Japan and her allies (e.g. Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy). While Puyi did certainly come back to the throne, he was but an emperor-in-name only.

In 1945 with the defeat of Japan in the Second World War, Puyi was caught by the Soviets trying to flee to Japan. He was then repatriated to the Communist Chinese government, where he was sent to a re-education camp to commit to the communist ideology. Puyi would live the remainder of his life in Beijing as a citizen of the People’s Republic. Miraculously, Puyi went largely unscathed by the Cultural Revolution that passed through China, which did denounce all aspects of the country’s imperial pass. Puyi passed away in 1967, shortly after the Cultural Revolution ended. After negotiations between his family and the government, was buried near the Western Qing Tombs – the site where previous Qing Emperors that came before him were buried.

Puyi’s life has become popularized in the 1987 biopic, The Last Emperor (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0093389/), winner of nine Academy Awards that year (including Best Picture and Best Director). Almost three hours long, The Last Emperor chronicles Puyi’s life starting with his ascent to the imperial throne, his time under Japanese manipulation, and ending with his life in Communist China. Interestingly, this movie was the first Western feature film made in China with the Chinese government’s full cooperation since 1949 (when China turned Red). It was also the first feature film permitted by the Chinese government to film in the Forbidden Palace, which was made an UNESCO World Heritage Site on the same year that the The Last Emperor premiered.

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