China activist reveals key role in ship seizure

Head of wartime compensation group has hand in multiple forced labor suits in Chinese courts


Citing the need to clarify the historical record to improve relations between Tokyo and Beijing, a prominent Chinese activist has come out as the force behind the plaintiffs in a compensation case that led to Saturday’s seizure by the Shanghai Maritime Court of a ship belonging to Mitsui O.S.K. Lines Ltd.

Tong Zeng, chairman of the Chinese Association for Claiming Compensation from Japan, is also heavily involved in lawsuits filed by Chinese who were forced to work in Japan during the war.

“I believe solving history issues in postwar China with private-sector efforts will contribute to improving our country’s relations with Japan,” said Tong, 57.

Tokyo said Tuesday it has lodged a formal protest over China’s seizure of the Japanese ship over unpaid bills dating back to the 1930s, the latest move underscoring the enmity between the Asian giants.

“We have told the Chinese side through diplomatic channels that we regret its seizure of the vessel. . . . We demand China take appropriate measures,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters in Tokyo.

The move could “intimidate Japanese companies doing business in China,” Suga said, adding Japan was “deeply worried.”

The iron ore carrier Baosteel Emotion was seized based on a ruling in the lawsuit over a ship lease contract signed in 1936. The Japanese shipping company was ordered to pay compensation but has yet to do so.

A Chinese shipping company, Chung Wei Steamship Co., leased two ships to Daido Kaiun, one of the predecessors of Mitsui O.S.K. But the Japanese company allegedly failed to return the ships and continued to use them without paying leasing fees after the one-year contract had expired. The ships eventually sank.

After Tong received a phone call from the plaintiffs and learned of the ship’s seizure, he posted a message on the Weibo Chinese microblog site, which is similar to Twitter, saying this was the first lawsuit to be won by the Chinese Association for Claiming Compensation from Japan.

Tong has been an activist for many years.

In 1991, he submitted a statement to the National People’s Congress seeking war reparations from Japan at the private level. He became well-known after holding a press conference on private reparations lawsuits.

Tong challenges the position that all claims against Japan for wartime reparations became void when Beijing signed the 1972 Japan-China joint statement normalizing diplomatic ties between the two countries. “The right to claim compensation has not been waived at the private or individual level,” Tong said.

Besides war reparations, Tong has claimed China’s sovereignty over the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, as chairman of the China Federation for Defending the Diaoyu Islands, as the islets are called by Beijing.

The Chinese government has tried to block Tong’s activities, but he has continued to support lawsuits seeking compensation from Japan for wartime forced labor. After losing in Japan, Tong switched to filing lawsuits with Chinese courts.

Tong, chairman of an investment company, supports such lawsuits by consulting with lawyers for plaintiffs and providing financial support.

Amid the worsening of Japan-China relations, a damages suit over forced labor was accepted for the first time by a Chinese court in March, while the Chinese authorities moved to seize the Japanese ship 26 years after the case was launched and four years after a final ruling was made.

“The reason why Japan does not seriously reflect on what it has done in history is because both China and Japan have been hiding history issues for many years,” Tong says. “Bringing them to light (to let Japanese people learn what really happened) should lead to improvement of bilateral relations in the long run.”

  • hudsonstewart

    The irony is that if Tong were to conduct similar actions to reveal the history of his own country’s treatment of certain ethnic minority groups, he would be locked up for life.

    • jhk123

      Well that is Chinese people owing other Chinese people. Nothing to do with Japan. Look to honor your own debts and obligations before pointing out others.

    • BobbyWong

      Sure, and I wonder how would Native Americans do in US courts… OOPS!

  • The Truth

    If the Japanese company failed to return the ships and continued to use them without paying leasing fees after the one-year contract had expired, can you blame the Chinese court ruling in favour of the Chinese company?