NANJING, CHINA – China held a memorial ceremony Sunday for victims of the 1937 massacre committed by the Imperial Japanese Army in Nanking, with President Xi Jinping skipping the event after attending last year, as the two countries move toward repairing their often-testy relations.
This year’s ceremony in the eastern Chinese city comes after China’s successful bid in October to include documents on the military rampage in the “Memory of the World” program by the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the U.N.’s cultural agency.
China last year designated Dec. 13 as a national memorial day for the victims and for the first time held a state observance of the tragedy that Beijing says killed more than 300,000.
The previous ceremony was spotlighted internationally as Xi delivered a speech saying that nobody can deny the atrocities, at a time when Sino-Japanese relations were still much more fragile than they are now.
However, in addition to Xi, none of the others who sit on the Chinese ruling Communist Party’s seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, the country’s apex of power, participated in this year’s event.
Leading up to the service, coverage by Chinese official media was also low-key, amid a gradual-but-steady improvement in diplomatic relations between Tokyo and Beijing.
The highest-ranking Chinese official at the ceremony to mark the 78th anniversary of the massacre was Li Jianguo, vice chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress.
Citing UNESCO’s recent inscription of a dossier on the widespread killings, Li said “history is the best textbook” in his speech at the venue, where thousands of Chinese officials, veterans and schoolchildren were present.
Li said the massacre has “world significance” as a lesson from the past.
“We have to resolutely oppose anyone who beautifies the war of aggression and any action or word that attempts to drive history backward,” Li said.
But at the same, in line with what Xi has been saying in past months, the vice chairman said the two countries have witnessed a great development since the 1972 normalization of diplomatic ties and that both should continue to promote friendly cooperation with a future-oriented spirit and contribute to world peace.
Japanese troops invaded China in the 1930s and the two Asian countries fought a full-scale war from 1937 to 1945 that ended with Japan’s defeat in World War II.
On Dec. 13, 1937, Japanese forces took control of Nanking, the name of the Chinese capital at the time. It is now known as Nanjing.
Japanese troops’ killing of a large number of Chinese civilians, rape of women and looting, in both the run-up to the city’s capture and the weeks that followed, remains one of the biggest sources of friction between the neighbors.
China this year has held a series of events to mark the 70th anniversary of what it calls its victory against Japan’s aggression, including a massive military parade in September in Beijing.
Japanese and Chinese historians are still divided on the number of victims in the mass murder.
Differing views on the number has been a cause of tension between them.
Japanese and some foreign historians have estimated the number of Chinese civilians and soldiers killed by the Japanese military to range from the tens of thousands to 200,000.
Some Japanese nationalists dispute that a massacre in Nanjing, which is now the provincial capital of Jiangsu province, even took place.
With regard to UNESCO’s inscription, the Japanese government has lodged a protest over an entity that should be neutral in sensitive political and historical issues “unilaterally” including the Chinese documents in the world list without allowing Tokyo to access them for verification.