In some cities, scars run deep.
Take a stroll around the memorial to the Rape of Nanjing, and you will find pits where Japanese troops indiscriminately gunned down the city’s Chinese civilians 75 years ago. Impossible to identify and rebury, their bones have been left for viewing. Visitors walk over them, snapping photos with their mobile phones. Every year on December 13, there is a peace conference at the memorial to commemorate the 300,000 civilians who died in this city during the Japanese invasion before World War II. Yet the conference proposes a curious form of peace, one in which militarism lies just below the surface.
Even as Chinese Communist Party officials speak about making peace with Japan and building a future together, the conference’s events draw more attention to the atrocities that the Japanese army committed on Chinese soil than to any future peace-building. Talk shows on state-run television and radio stations routinely feature guests who use the Rape of Nanjing to whip up renewed anger toward Japan. The contrast between the rhetoric about peace and war-mongering is jarring, but a closer look reveals this tension to be a tactic — using simmering militarism as a diversion from domestic problems.
Last August and September, anti-Japan protests took place in several Chinese cities. In Beijing, storefronts were vandalized and Japanese cars were destroyed. In Shenzhen, tear gas had to be used to disperse the crowd. Control over the South and East China seas was a major focal point of the violence, and these waters continue to spark tension in China’s relationships with the United States, Taiwan and Japan. China and Japan also clash over an island chain known as Diaoyu to the Chinese and Senkaku to the Japanese, which both countries claim to be part of their respective sovereign territories. With each passing day, relations between the two nations seem increasingly dire. One can’t help but think that war between the two Asian nations could break out soon, and that if it did Chinese citizenry have been well-trained to support military action.
Meanwhile, Chinese peace activists continue trying to create a counter-narrative — one focused on reconciliation.
One such activist based in Nanjing, who wished to remain anonymous, put it bluntly: “Japanese officials might deny the Rape of Nanjing, but the Chinese Communist Party is also at fault. The Party does not tell the whole truth about the time when the Japanese army invaded China because both sides committed war crimes. If they told the truth, they would be less credible when they use this event in history to denounce the actions of Japan regarding the Diaoyu Islands.”
Two of the activist’s grandparents lived in Nanjing when the Japanese stormed the city, and they suffered under Japanese occupation. That violent episode is part of his family history, but he still refuses to support any violent action against Japan. In fact, he encourages Chinese citizens to engage Japanese nationals and begin a collective grassroots dialogue, one that establishes friendships between the two nations’ peoples.
The struggle over the memory of Nanjing is, in some ways, counterintuitive. Those who should be most bitter are the ones fighting for peace, while those who are responsible for brokering security are agitating for war.
The survivors of the Nanjing massacre form a key part of the effort to make peace with Japan. They make media appearances and issue public statements in support of Japanese scholars who buck the trend in their own country by admitting that the Rape of Nanjing did indeed occur. While the two sides may not see eye to eye on the details — they disagree over the number of deaths, as well as the number of girls and women forced into prostitution — they share the goal of building a common future for their descendants.
Cao Zhi Ku, now 89 years of age, stands among the 200 men and women officially recognized as survivors of the Rape of Nanjing. In 1937, when he was 14, the Japanese military began dropping bombs on the city where he lived with his family. In one of the air raids, machine gun fire from a Japanese bomber ripped open his left thigh. During our first meeting, he grabbed my hand and pushed it into the hole that is still in his left leg, just to make sure I understood what he lost during the invasion. Cao now lives a quiet, solitary life near the memorial grounds, and he meets with Japanese delegations — students, educators and historians — whenever they visit Nanjing. Even though he wakes up every morning to see an incomplete limb attached to his body, and even though the constant pain in his leg reminds him of a time when death was the norm around him, he bears no ill will towards the Japanese people.
“There was a time when I was enraged, and it lasted a long time,” he said. “But that has passed and things are different now. I just want the Japanese government to give us an official apology. Young people in Japan are becoming interested in this part of our history, and they are slowly accepting the truth of what their soldiers did to us.”
If Chinese citizens — even those who lived through the invasion — want to build peaceful relations with Japan, then why did the anti-Japan riots occur? Many suspect that the Chinese government has sanctioned, though not officially endorsed, anti-Japan demonstrations held throughout the country.
The evidence is subtle, but compelling. The language, typeface and color scheme of the banners hoisted during the anti-Japan protests are suspiciously similar to those created by the Department of Propaganda of the Chinese Communist Party. The official government messaging — red banners printed with white words — is impossible to miss. Banners with the same appearance were part of the demonstrations, and the slogans displayed the same speech patterns used by propaganda writers.
Additionally, the lack of police presence at most of these riots was surprising, given the nation’s normal handling of civil unrest. I once walked by a peaceful sit-in of 20 retired teachers who hadn’t received their pension payments due to bureaucratic maneuvers and possible corruption. More than 20 police officers, some of whom had riot gear ready, boxed in the quiet, unarmed and cooperative teachers. With minimal verbal provocation, there could have been beatings, arrests and public condemnation. In contrast, as storefronts offering Japanese goods in Shenzhen and Beijing were sacked, and as Honda and Toyota automobiles were set aflame and destroyed during the anti-Japan protests, the police on scene did little to intervene.
The Chinese government encourages a quiet tension by keeping conflicts with Japan at a slow simmer, thus distracting the public from widespread domestic problems like corruption, localized unrest, demographic changes, environmental issues and an inadequate education system — to name only a few. Each of these is more important than control over a small island chain. Yet symbolism outweighs realism, and it has become a matter of pride for both sides to win this maritime tug-of-war. The Japanese, after all, are considered by the Chinese to be invaders, with blood debt stretching back centuries. The idea that the Chinese must “defend Diaoyu” has become a household phrase.
Back in Nanjing, the curator of the massacre memorial is keen to point out that there are only 200 survivors of the Rape remaining in the city. Everyone else who was there when the Japanese invaded has either passed away or relocated. In the search for survivors to interview, we found that there are indeed about 200 people officially recognized by the government as survivors of the Rape of Nanjing. But there are many more survivors in the city who are arbitrarily designated as “witnesses,” a classification that further allows the government to manipulate the historical narrative by suggesting that the whole city was wiped out except for a rare few. Furthermore, it is yet another way of suppressing those who want to engage Japan in a peaceful manner despite having survived the massacre.
China and Japan have been at each other’s throats for centuries. Kublai Khan tried to invade the Japanese islands. Japanese pirates operated along the Chinese coast. China and Japan went to war twice over the Korean peninsula. Now, the Chinese government’s gentle reminder that “the Japanese killed us” continues to fuel territorial disputes with Japan, and the artificial support and frenetic approval that follow are exactly what the Communist Party needs to direct people’s frustration and anger outward. Xenophobic rhetoric takes center stage, and the voices of peacemakers are drowned out.