China Today: Beijing’s problematic relationships

Dispute between China and Japan over Senkaku/Diaoyu islands is but one in a long list

A man walks past a sculpture outside the Memorial Hall of the Victims of the Nanjing Massacre by Japanese Invaders, in Nanjing. Photograph: China Photos/Getty Images

A man walks past a sculpture outside the Memorial Hall of the Victims of the Nanjing Massacre by Japanese Invaders, in Nanjing. Photograph: China Photos/Getty Images


From nearly 450m high, near the top of the Intercontinental hotel in the former capital Nanjing, you can look down on the eastern Chinese city’s ancient walls, the Zijin Mountain and Lake Xuanwu, and observe columns of traffic pulsing through a modern metropolis.

During the 14th century this was the world’s biggest city with a population of nearly half a million, and the capital of the Ming empire until the Yongle emperor Zhu Di moved the capital to Beijing.

Today, the Adrian Smith-designed building towers over this wealthy and ambitious city as a symbol of Nanjing’s prosperous future. And yet, for all its present-day vibrancy and energy, the city is also the focus of an historic debate that has come to define relations between China and Japan, the world’s second and third-largest economies and the powerhouses driving Asia’s remarkable rise.

China is at odds with most of its neighbours over various maritime claims in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. It disputes ownership of part of the South China Sea with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. But the most intense standoff, and the most problematic relationship, has always been with Japan.

After the collapse of the Qing dynasty and the end of imperial China, Sun Yat-sen founded the Republic of China in January 1912, and Nanjing, then known as Nanking under the old romanisation, became the capital, but it was only in 1928, when the Kuomintang (KMT) leader Chiang Kai-shek took control of all of China, that it became the formal capital.

In 1931, the imperial Japanese army invaded Manchuria, which for the the Chinese is the start of the second World War. Between 13 and 20 million Chinese people died in the conflict, and 100 million were left refugees. The country was the biggest casualty of Japan’s expansionist policy of the 1930s, when it sought to establish the “Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere”.

The Japanese ground assault on the then capital of China began on December 10th, 1937, and the city fell on December 13th, the signal for the start of a six-week- long killing spree known as the “Rape of Nanjing”. The Chinese say more than 300,000 people were killed, although the 1948 Tokyo war crimes tribunal found that Japanese troops killed some 150,000. “People still are very hostile to Japan,” says Nanjing resident Shi Jing, who works as an office clerk.

“We don’t think about the war any more. It was a long time ago, and not many people who survived the war are still alive,” says Shi, adding that the Sino-Japanese relationship is very important, and that Japan has had a big influence on young Chinese, in everything from food to clothes to culture.

As proof of Japan’s failure to atone for the horrors of the second World War, Beijing points to the regular visits by Japanese leaders to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honours 2.5 million Japanese war dead, including war criminals.

Senkaku/Diaoyu islands

“Personally, I think Japan should do what Germany is doing to compensate people financially in accordance with international laws. And we should have an extra levy on companies that profited from the war,” says Shi.

He believes that China’s status in the region has room to grow. “Internationally China is the biggest country and the biggest producer, but we don’t really have a voice. America tries to suppress China in many areas, including monetary policy and anti-tariff barriers, so I don’t think our status is that high,” he says.

Some conservative Japanese politicians and scholars deny a massacre took place, which as far as the Chinese are concerned, is the equivalent of denying the Holocaust in Europe took place.

The situation is complicated further because China’s attitude to Japan since the war has been less than consistent, feeding Japanese theories that Beijing likes to turn up the heat in Sino-Japanese relations whenever it wants to distract from domestic issues.

Chairman Mao Zedong, China’s founding father and the man who created the Communist Party as it exists today, was largely uninterested in forcing Japan to apologise. Without the invasion and Japanese militarism, there would have been no Communist revolution, he argued, when Japanese envoys came to China in 1972 to apologise. With Chiang Kai-shek’s KMT tied up fighting the Japanese, it was easier for the Communists to create the conditions for the Revolution.

Despite Mao’s standpoint, there is little such ambiguity on the Chinese side these days. Maj Gen Luo Yuan, who is with the Academy of Military Sciences, said: “It is better for the doer to undo what he has done. Who and what caused Sino-Japanese relations to be at such a low ebb?”

“There are political obstacles between China and Japan. One is the Diaoyu Islands issue. They constantly provoke us. The other one is the prime minister’s visits to the Yasukuni Shrine. This is an historical problem. The fundamental problem is that Japan wants to get rid of the shackles of the second World War and they want to become a normal country,” said Luo. “They can become a normal country, but they need to think again about the war.”

During a recent visit to Europe, President Xi Jinping paid tribute to German businessman John Rabe, a paid-up member of the Nazi Party who helped to save the lives of more than 250,000 people by offering refuge in the garden of his house near Nanjing’s university.

Rabe led a group of western missionaries, businessmen and scholars in draping Red Cross flags painted on sheets around a two-by-three-kilometre international safety zone. The quarter of a million people who were able to get inside the safety zone survived. His story has been turned into several big-budget movies, and his house has been turned into a memorial, with support from his former employers, Siemens. He was ingenious: an air-raid shelter he built in his courtyard in August 1937, when the Japanese air attack began, was covered with a giant swastika flag to dissuade attackers.

Zhang Lifan, a Beijing-based political commentator, believes relations between China and Japan are unlikely to change much. “As for China and Japan relations, it will not be worse, but it will not be better either. Both governments use patriotism and racism as a tool to realise their political purposes,” he said.

China has really stepped up its efforts to put the events of 1937 in Nanjing on the international agenda.In April, the government released previously confidential Japanese wartime documents, including accounts of the brutal invasion of the wartime capital Nanjing and details of how women were forced into sex slavery in military brothels during the war.

In November, a local radio station began airing testimonies by survivors of the event, including that of Zha Fukui, who was stabbed five times by Japanese soldiers. “Although it has been more than 70 years [since the day my family was slaughtered], I have never been able to forget what had happened,” the 85-year-old Xia told the Global Times.

“Some Japanese right-wingers called me a fake witness, which only caused me more pain. What happened during the Nanjing massacre was real and undeniable. I hope people today will not forget history or how much pain Japan’s invasion had brought to this country and its people. [We should] cherish peace and oppose war,” Xia said.

Teach them of the horrors

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