BEIJING – China’s top leaders gathered in Beijing on Wednesday to participate in China’s first national observance of the “victory” against Japan, a day of remembrance added to the national calendar earlier this year as part of a campaign to castigate Japan and increase national unity by raising awareness of wartime history.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang and other top leaders presided over the brief ceremony, which was held at the site of the 1937 Marco Polo Bridge Incident, a skirmish between Japanese and Chinese troops commonly considered the start of Japan’s second war with China.
The event marking Japan’s official surrender in China opened with a moment of silence broadcast live on Chinese state television in place of regularly scheduled programming. It was the second mass ceremony this summer related to the war. On July 7, Xi became the first Chinese president to attend an official observance of the start of hostilities with Japan.
Speaking at the same site as Wednesday’s observance, Xi blasted Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government for what China sees as Japan’s revisionist positions on the war, saying, “No one can revise history and truth.”
Chinese lawmakers added the day of remembrance to the national calendar this February. It is one of three new “days of remembrance” intended to encourage the country to think about the war and, most importantly, Japan’s role in it.
On Dec. 13, China will, for the first time, observe “National Memorial Day for Nanjing Massacre Victims” to honor Chinese citizens killed during the 1937 invasion of the ancient capital Nanking.
Sept. 30 will be “Martyrs’ Day” to remember those who gave their lives during WWII and the Sino-Japanese War, as well as other conflicts.
The announcement establishing Martyrs’ Day came just days after a news report that Abe had sent a letter in April to a memorial ceremony for Japanese soldiers who were executed as Class-A, Class-B and Class-C war criminals. In the letter, he described the men as “martyrs” who died in the service of their country, according to the report.
The day after the proclamation, Beijing published a list of 300 “national martyrs,” 152 of whom lost their lives during the war.
It also released a register of 80 historical sites and museums related to the conflict, calling on government bodies to educate Chinese youth about Japan’s “crimes” as a means of encouraging patriotism and building national unity.
Leading up to Wednesday’s anniversary, Chinese media featured a constant stream of reports about Japan’s role in the war, many based on documents released by the government as part of a coordinated campaign highlighting wartime atrocities.
This week’s reports included present-day interviews with elderly Japanese war criminals that China returned to Japan after “reeducating” them in Communist prisons.
Sino-Japanese relations are at their lowest point in decades as the two countries argue over territorial disputes and how much contrition Japan should show for its role in the war.
Tokyo’s decision in July to loosen restrictions on the country’s ability to engage in collective self-defense provided additional fodder for Beijing’s feeding of national anxiety about its neighbor.
In the months leading up to and following the decision, Chinese politicians darkly hinted at the possibility that the move was a first step toward rebuilding Japan’s imperial ambitions.
The Abe administration has done little to stem the tide of criticism.
Last December, the prime minister provoked outrage in Beijing and Seoul by visiting Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan’s war dead, along with Japanese war criminals who were secretly enshrined there.
Other members of the government have made remarks that implied a revisionist perspective on Japanese wartime atrocities, most notably by denying the Japanese military’s role in the sexual enslavement of thousands of women, euphemistically known in Japan as the “ianfu” (comfort women), for use by its soldiers.
Although the Chinese government has said its efforts to draw attention to Japan’s role in the war are intended as a reminder of the importance of preserving peace, the pronouncement accompanying Monday’s declaration of a register of national martyrs pointed to a different objective.
Educating Chinese citizens about Japan’s war crimes, the document said, will strengthen the country’s “great patriotic spirit,” “increase national cohesion” and “provide strong spiritual motivation for realizing the Chinese dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people.”
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