On Dec. 13, 2012, the Nanjing Massacre Museum held a ceremony to mark the 75th anniversary of the city’s nightmare that unfolded after the former capital of the Republic of China fell on that day to Imperial Japanese troops who were allowed to run amok for weeks. Official estimates of the number of Chinese civilians and disarmed soldiers killed generally vary between 200,000 and 300,000.
Among some 9,000 who gathered for the ceremony, most were school students, but there were also a few survivors participating in this ritualistic remembering of Japanese war crimes. And thus a new generation of Chinese was baptized in contemporary battles over war memory that seep into and shape overall bilateral relations.
While some Japanese reactionaries cling to denial and others try to minimize this horrific history, it will not be forgotten and will remain a critical factor in Sino-Japanese relations. Hence on that cold winter’s day, air-raid sirens sounded all over the city at 10 a.m., piercing the din of traffic and construction as they reminded everyone about Japanese malevolence.
That day, too — underscoring just how relevant the past is to the present — a Chinese maritime surveillance plane for the first time entered the airspace over a disputed group of uninhabited islets in the East China Sea known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan and Diaoyu in China.
Coincidence perhaps, but the next morning’s front pages in China were dominated by headlines and photos of both events — so ensuring an indelible connection.
Although Chinese commentators said Tokyo had overreacted to the plane’s presence by scrambling fighter jets, it’s also likely that the point of the probing was to push Japanese buttons and remind them the territorial dispute is not just going to go away if they try to ignore it.
In China there is no question that the disputed islands are war booty that Japan illicitly controls and must return.
Tan Dao, a think-tank analyst, told me: “The flight over the Diaoyu was not linked to the Nanjing anniversary. The new leader (Xi Jinping) needs to demonstrate he is strong.”
China’s maritime and aerial probing continues in 2013, confronting new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe with a much bigger challenge than he faced during his previous tenure in 2006-07. At that time, he managed to revive relations that his predecessor Junichiro Koizumi had derailed by blithely ignoring Chinese sensitivities and paying his respects at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, the iconic ground-zero for an unrepentant view of Japan’s wartime rampages.
The volatile mix of history, nationalism, resource competition and geopolitics involving the disputed islands suggests more turbulence ahead and highlights the need for leadership in Beijing and Tokyo to figure out a way to manage this festering crisis.
Shelving competing claims to sovereignty is a necessary step, but that alone will not resolve the tremendous and ongoing power shift in East Asia as China’s rise generates deep anxieties, and some hostility, among many Japanese even as others see fantastic opportunities.
But any muted animosity in Japan — there have been no anti-Chinese demonstrations nor attacks on the Chinese presence — pales compared to Chinese sentiments.
At the entrance of the Nanjing Massacre Museum (NMM), in fact, there is a sign reminding visitors that it is a site for “civilized visiting and rational patriotism” — suggesting this may not always pertain.
Yet the analyst Tan grew visibly upset as he told me, “I don’t feel comfortable visiting the NMM. I think about how it must have been like and what I would do if I saw my wife and daughter being slaughtered. China can forgive, but Japan needs to acknowledge what it did. And take responsibility. And young people there can’t just blame their grandfathers and escape history … they need to learn the lessons.”
Then he confided, “If I have a choice I won’t buy Japanese.”
I walked through the NMM with Tian Z., who works in the financial services industry and didn’t want his full name published. Tian, 28, has spent about half his life in Japan, where he graduated from university. As for the NMM, he told me: “I didn’t like it as I felt it was conveying the Communist Party’s intentions. The museum is one of the so-called Patriotism Education Bases in China. … (it’s) supposed to remind and warn the Chinese how backward the country was and how the Communist Party changed the fate of the nation. And it featured many political slogans; for example, I noticed President Hu Jintao’s ‘Harmonious Society’ concept was quoted in the panels.”
But, Tian noted, society is not very harmonious in China for very good reasons, as “the youth here are frustrated with the inequalities, the wealth gap, environment, public manners and lack of freedom and freedom of expression.
“Such people may simply think Japan is the 100-percent bad guy and China was the victim and China’s backwardness may be partly due to Japan’s invasion,” he said. “On the other hand, China’s youth are also eager for everything material-wise and information-wise — and most still watch Japanese animation, while many fancy sushi and Japanese fashion brands.
“There are hard-core Japanese animation and pop-culture fans here, and I think the base is not small,” Tian told me.
In northern Nanjing, along the banks of the Yangtze River where many Chinese were massacred, I saw groups of school children laying flowers at the riverside cenotaph and asked their teacher why he’d brought those fourth-year elementary students to the site. He replied: “I want to inspire them to study hard and help build a stronger nation. And to remind them that if a country is weak, it will be bullied by others.”
Unlike Tian, a postgraduate student and Communist Party member named Jez praised the NMM — but said, on condition his full name was not published, that he thinks its message is being used to stir up patriotism helpful to the government.
He analyzed the current political situation in China — from the ouster of Bo Xilai to territorial and history disputes — as being orchestrated by the elite to draw attention away from pressing issues such as huge income disparities, corruption and poor governance. Hence, he said, the lower classes are being cynically manipulated through heavy doses of nationalism.
Even more straightforwardly, Tian added: “China suffers from no rule of law and no democracy. It’s not a country where anyone can succeed based only on merit. There is widespread discontent but no options. It is like a hall of mirrors where everything is distorted, and what you think you see and know is not what it seems. History doesn’t really matter; China’s real problems are corruption, pollution and lack of freedom. Japan at least has order and safety.”
Meanwhile, a bright mid-30s official I met expressed indignation that many of his former university classmates, even lousy and lazy students, were now far wealthier than him even though he passed the difficult tests to land a coveted government job. He had prevailed in the system, and enjoyed high status, but they had the big houses, nice cars and luxurious lifestyles. He said he regrets missing his chance in business — but didn’t hide his resentment about a world where top exam results don’t translate into the good life.
Such simmering grievances must be widespread among the new mandarins — though everyone disparages party officials for lining their pockets and tucking away illicit wealth in offshore accounts.
So a key question is whether the party, which has betrayed and trampled so many along the way, can continue doing so.
Certainly, the media is less pliable as is evident from the now commonplace exposes of high-level corruption even as the government steps up Internet and media censorship. Although 2012′s Nobel laureate in literature, Mo Yan, compared censorship to airport security screening — claiming it was necessary for public safety — Chinese people I spoke with scoffed at the comparison. And journalists at the reformist, Guangzhou- based Southern Weekend newspaper who have recently been involved in a very public censorship standoff are trying to push the envelope of what is permissible.
Nonetheless, regarding prospects for improving Sino-Japanese relations, Tian cautioned: “I think the Chinese government holds the veto-power. … They can decide how to portray the Japanese in the media, how to welcome or punish Japanese companies in China, and how to link or abandon the connections between the youth of the two countries.”
Scholars I met in Nanjing, however, suggested that the relationship depends on what the Japanese government does. In their view, former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara’s gambit to purchase the disputed islands on behalf of the Metropolitan Government, and the national government’s preemptive purchase that followed, are all of a piece.
I tried to explain that it could be said the central government had acted in good faith to stop Ishihara using the islands to stoke hostilities, but in my interlocutors’ minds, Japan is monolithic and the purchase of the islands was planned to strengthen its claim to sovereignty.
After a lecture I was asked to give to party members on a graduate program at the Jiangsu School of Public Administration, many of the questions focused on the U.S. role in instigating or manipulating the territorial dispute.
One participant later emailed me, suggesting that the U.S., by declaring the islands are subject to the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between Japan and the U.S., was throwing fuel on the fire and stood to benefit from growing regional discord. Moreover, Washington’s position of studied ambiguity — not taking sides on sovereignty while acknowledging Japan’s administrative control and declaring the islands protected territory — was dismissed as dangerous sophistry.
When I asked what the U.S. gains from the tensions, I was told that it helped to justify President Barack Obama’s pivot toward Asia and to support the U.S. strategy of containment directed against Beijing.
Among the professional scholars I met in Nanjing was Professor Xiaming Wang of the Jiangsu School of Public Administration, who was somewhat optimistic that the current impasse would be resolved and more normal relations developed.
He said he believes Beijing would be satisfied if Japan at least acknowledged there is a territorial dispute. In his view, “Ordinary people believe the propaganda that Japan doesn’t have enough regret over the past. Those who are more informed understand that this is not the case. Beijing is trying to marginalize events in the past to focus on the future. Unless some Japanese say something outrageous to provoke the Chinese, people are pragmatic.
“Of course we would welcome some gesture by Japan. Making a clear statement about what happened and apologizing would help. But it is important that Japan does not do or say anything negative.”
Asked why Beijing relentlessly escalated the war of words over last summer, Wang speculated that, “Hu Jintao did not want his legacy to be tarnished by compromising over the Diaoyu.”
Well, he is safe on that score, but his legacy seems to be one of missed opportunities to address the manifold domestic grievances that are key factors driving external disputes.
Given that the island issue has morphed into a test of wills, with Tokyo and Beijing both pursuing a dead-end policy of all or nothing, a cooling-down period in 2013 may be the best-case scenario. Beyond that, can the new leaders provide each other a ladder to climb down?
Jeff Kingston is Director of Asian Studies, Temple University, Japan.