Published: 23:03, May 17, 2020 | Updated: 02:26, June 6, 2023
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The real problem with the DSE history examination question
By Ho Lok-sang

There is now an ongoing controversy over a question that appeared in the history examination under the Diploma of Secondary Education curriculum. The question asked if students agreed to the statement that Japan had done more good than harm to China between 1900 and 1945.

Critics say that the question hurts the feelings of the Chinese who were victims of the treacherous and barbaric invasion that caused millions of deaths across the country and resulted in countless broken families. Japan’s invasion started in 1931 with “the 9/18 incident”, which led to the formation of Japan’s puppet state, Manchukuo, in northeast China. In 1937, Japan launched an all-out war against China after an incident at Lugou Bridge near Beijing. Critics asked: Could a public examination in Germany ask if the Holocaust did more good than harm to the Jews? Or would the US tolerate a question like “Comment on whether Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor brought more benefit than harm to the US”?

Others argue that it is an open question with no model answer and no bias. Students are expected to draw on the knowledge that they have learned to argue one way or the other. Ignoring the huge cost brought on the Chinese people would certainly lead to a poor grade. The purpose of education is to nurture critical thinking. Students need to have an open mind, and should not preclude any possibility. Instead, they should draw on historical facts and provide good reasoning.

Although this argument appears to make sense, the question is still flawed because implicitly it is fostering a wrong set of values. It seems to suggest that Japan’s conduct during that period could still be fine if overall benefits were bigger than overall costs. The question implicitly suggests that a crime against humanity can be justified if, in the end, “benefit outweighs cost”.

In our study of history, we should learn to identify the dark side of human nature and the need for national solidarity and national defense

It is an important mission of educators that we should pass on ethical values to our students. There are acts that are ethically wrong. They can never be justified by the incidental benefits that they might bring to victims, and they cannot be offset by other “good deeds”. Moreover, one can never demonstrate “benefit outweighs cost” because history would have been different, and who would know how China could have evolved in the absence of Japan’s deeds?

The Chinese people remember the 100 years of humiliation, which did unite the Chinese people and encourage them to unite and work hard on nation-building. But can we say that invasion and colonization are good? Who can tell what would have happened if the 100 years of humiliation had never occurred? Evil acts are still evil acts, regardless of the consequences.

Evil acts represent an absence of compassion for the victims and preoccupation with the benefits from the invasion and little consideration for the human sufferings of others. In our study of history, we should learn to identify the dark side of human nature and the need for national solidarity and national defense.

The body of the question makes no reference to specific acts, even though two specific historical facts were supplied; those two historical events occurred within the period 1905-12. Within the time frame spanning 1900 to 1945, the Japanese had done many things, and no doubt include both good things and bad things. One could say the same with reference to practically the people of every country. What is the point of listing them and checking if the total costs are bigger or if total benefits are bigger?

Given that the subject is history, and given that we want to encourage critical analysis and to nurture historical sense, questions need reference to specific historical events, in which different historical actors play different historical roles. The question is now asking students: How would you weigh the benefits and costs of the mixed bag of different things done by the Japanese? Excerpts from two documents were provided: one from the president of a Japanese university who agreed to offer a one-year course on law and politics to students sent by the Qing government; another from Huang Xing, a revolutionary with Sun Yat-sen, seeking a loan with the Mitsui group to help with the setting up of the new post-revolution government. If these suggest that the Japanese had done something good, so what? To put it another way, if Japan had conquered the world and then went on to do many good things thereafter, so what?

The Education Bureau has decided that in view of the controversy, that particular question should be excluded from assessment. This must be a very painful decision, and definitely will not please everyone. Fortunately, it was a compulsory question, so every candidate had presumably attempted it. If it had been an elective question, excluding it would have been even more problematic. I would personally prefer that the authorities simply ensure that the marking guide be reasonable and strictly adhered to. I believe announcing the marking guide will be educational.

The question is definitely poorly set. I need not infer any ulterior motive from those who set the questions. But I have little doubt the setter of that question did not do a good job.

The author is a senior research fellow at the Pan Sutong Shanghai-HK Economic Policy Research Institute, Lingnan University. 

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.