False targets and the rise of fascism

2012-09-21Asia Times

BEIJING - The very first sign of fascism in Europe was the capture of Fiume in 1919 by a bunch of Italian World War I veterans led by poet-warrior Gabriele D'Annunzio. Italy had won the war but lost the peace, as many right-wing propagandists were fond of saying, and the symbol of the loss was embodied in Fiume, a city of mixed nationalities that had well represented the multi-ethnicity of the Habsburg Empire.

But after the war redrew European borders, by respecting national lines rather than loyalties to a crown, Fiume was caught in the middle. Half-Slav, half-Italian, with a sprinkling of German blood, Fiume was pulled between the newborn union of southern Slavs (Yugoslavia) and infant Italy. Despite its young age (it had proclaimed unification just 58 years earlier, in 1861, and had wrested Rome, its capital, from the pope 49 years before, in 1870), the latter came swaggering on to the international scene like a grand power.

The reasons Fiume was given to Yugoslavia and not Italy were indeed debatable. There was the possibility that the victorious allies, London and Paris, wanted to contain the power and swagger of then-boastful Italy, which had managed to win the 1918 Piave Offensive almost on its own. Yet for D'Annunzio to lead a band of ragtag veterans to invade Fiume and thus destroy on the ground the agreement the powers had just reached in Paris was an entirely different matter.

D'Annunzio and the Italians, who then supported his action, vanquished not only the weak Yugoslavs, but also any prospect of a lasting peace in Europe. They opened the doors to fascism and World War II. (Fiume is now the Croatian city of Rijeka.)

Borders are in fact always disputable and never certain. One can contest them with discussions and arguments or by using force and threats. The first method is more manageable; the latter breaks the existing order with consequences that are hard to predict, especially in a volatile international context.

In Europe, even a defeated country used that method of contesting the terms of peace, when again a group of veterans led by an artist - a failed painter sporting a small mustache, Adolf Hitler - accused generals of having betrayed the German people and argued that Germany had indeed won World War I but was stabbed in the back by the Jews and communist defeatists. Then Hitler disputed Germany's borders and tried to expand the country at the cost of its neighbors.

As was made clear by the results of World War II, the generals who in World War I surrendered without waiting for Allied forces to pillage Berlin had done their best to save the country, but Hitler did the worst for Germany.

Is there a lesson for China in this? In recent days, thousands of Chinese have taken to the streets to protest against Japanese "occupation" of "Chinese" islands called Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan. This is legitimate. What is illegitimate and very dangerous for China, as Hitler proved in Germany, is shouting slogans that call for dropping nuclear bombs on Japan or singing songs advocating that Tokyo be stamped down. There have been violent anti-Japanese protests in the past, but the violence of these present slogans is unprecedented.

Moreover, the past demonstrations were against alleged sleights for Japanese actions that had already been done and had to be amended. Now, protests are over an open wound that can't be fixed overnight; maybe it can't be fixed at all. It is hard to think that Japan tomorrow will decide to give the Senkakus to China, and even if this were to happen, it would send a frightening message to the world. Japan would be seen to have buckled under China's arrogance and threats, almost like France and Britain tried to appease Hitler's Germany and gave in to his requests over Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia in 1937. This gesture is now widely regarded in Europe as having accelerated the onset of World War II.

Japan may well be wrong in claiming to own the contested islands, but waging war against it to redress this alleged wrong suggests fascism. Moreover, similarly to what happened in Italy, this new breed of Chinese "fascists" use Japan as a false target. Their real goal is to put on the spot the present Chinese leadership, considered too weak with foreigners and thus undeserving to rule.

China has a long tradition of using foreigners to protest against its leaders. In 1919, after World War I, young Chinese students protested the peace terms accepted by republican China and started a movement that eventually led to breaking up the country and the arrival to power of the Communists. The Communists in the 1930s accused the Nationalists (Kuomintang) of betraying the country because they were not fighting the Japanese. Today, again some youngsters shout anti-Japanese slogans, burn Japanese cars, and don old-fashioned Mao jackets, a statement, like the black shirts in Italy or brown shirts in Germany, against the present post-Maoist Chinese leadership.

Chinese nationalism then helps to breed Japanese nationalism, never quite off the mainstream of Tokyo politics, and the two rightist movements de facto support each other, like images reflected in parallel mirrors in their respective countries. The louder the Chinese nationalists become, the stronger also Japanese nationalists can be. This also does not mean that the Japanese position on the islands is right and the Chinese is wrong or vice versa. There are also Japanese mistakes in handling the issues. Yet this is beyond the point.

It's hard to overstate the danger this movement poses for China and the world. Many considered China a threat simply for its peaceful economic and political development, without hearing Chinese people shouting any war cries. Now these slogans hint to countries steeped in the European historical tradition that a fascist and aggressive China is indeed a possibility. Then, in a nutshell, either Beijing takes care of its fascists or the world will take care of China, much to its chagrin.

Stamping down the roots of this new Chinese fascism may not be easy. Certainly, it might not be too difficult to forbid violent slogans or songs and arrest warmongers, but it is a different thing to root out the suffering of the people who are venting their many frustrations for what is ultimately the fast pace of change. This will naturally take decades.

In the meantime, people have to be allowed to vent their anger in a manner that is both peaceful and does not compromise the government, and the government needs any legitimacy it can muster to crack down on excesses. Governments mandated by a popular election have greater legitimacy in putting down protests they deem excessive: I can take this down because the majority is with me; you are a minority, you are free to express your opinions but can't act to endanger the majority.

Governments without the legitimization of a popular election have a harder time doing that because protesters can claim they represent the majority, and thus its best interests. How can a non-elected government disprove that?

Therefore, China needs political reforms to make it better able to crack down on the dangerous sprouting of fascism. Of course, these reforms have to be carefully crafted and should not become the very springboard for full-fledged fascism. Both in Italy and Germany, fascists came to power through democratic elections.

Navigating this narrow and subtle road is perhaps the biggest challenge for the next Communist Party congress this autumn.  (2012-09-21 Asia Times)


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