JIAOZHUANGHU, CHINA — ON a drizzly Saturday morning, hundreds of chattering Chinese schoolchildren filed through a museum and a maze of tunnels that were the residents' defenses during World War II.
A supply depot for the Red Army fighting the Japanese, this village tucked among the hills northwest of Beijing saw its share of atrocities during the war. Although rarely visited by foreigners, the area draws organized throngs of Chinese youths to make sure they don't forget, local officials say.
"We were slaves to the Japanese," says Li Fuhai, a local resident who helped dig six miles of tunnels and now sells soft drinks and snacks outside the museum. "I don't care what the economics are between China and Japan today. The Japanese treated us like animals."
"Many young students don't think the tunnels are a true story. But I'm a witness to that history. We teach them never to forget the suffering of the Chinese people," says Jiao Zhibin, who lectures in the museum.
"Today, we are living the good life and eating good food. How did this happen? Because we drove the Japanese out."
With the 50th anniversary of the war's end this week, the ruling Communists want to make sure Chinese never forget Japan's brutal eight-year occupation during the 1930s and 1940s. But only to an extent.
Since defeating Japan alongside the Nationalists and then overwhelming their Chinese rivals in 1949, the Communists have invoked the war as a convenient wellspring of patriotism and party legitimacy.
Tapping Chinese bitterness over the deaths of an estimated 10 million of their fellow citizens, the war anniversary has fueled nationalism as senior leader Deng Xiaoping declines and the uneasy leadership faces a succession crisis.
China exploits Japanese war guilt in diplomatic and economic ties, pushing Japan for more aid and lending concessions to ease the burden of outstanding debt after the sharp appreciation in the yen. Beijing surrendered claim to reparations from Japan in 1972, but demands an apology from Tokyo and allows individuals to file lawsuits.
Still, China treads carefully. As the country's champion against the Japanese, the government doesn't want volatile public opinion to get out of hand and spill over into unrest.
Recently, China has encountered a tougher Japan less easily manipulated by war transgressions. Tokyo is angry over continued Chinese nuclear-weapons tests and alarmed over Chinese military assertiveness in the Spratly Islands and elsewhere in Asia.
Japan is considering imposing import controls on Chinese textiles, a key trade commodity. Last week, China announced a second round of missile tests near Taiwan this month in an apparent effort to deter its island rival from seeking more international recognition.
Concurrently, China pursues growing trade and investment ties that increasingly intertwine its liberalized economy with Japan, its major foreign trading partner and creditor. Although Chinese resent the vanquished Japanese reincarnating as their technological and economic superior, there is grudging admiration for them.
"Chinese have very mixed feelings toward the Japanese. They are in flux," observes Jonathan Unger, a sociologist and China specialist at Australian National University in Canberra. Anti-Japanese feeling "is less intense than it was 10 years ago, because now they feel China is making it. China feels that some day it will be where Japan is."
Just how muddled Chinese emotions are was evident in the run-up to the anniversary.
In a major propaganda offensive, the Communist government highlighted Japan's invasion of China at the start of the war - rather than its defeat at the end. The Chinese government also invoked memories of China's wartime successes to shore up the party's shaky image, which has been damaged by political infighting and corruption.
The government has approved the release of a controversial film about the so-called Rape of Nanking (now known as Nanjing) in which about 300,000 Chinese people and soldiers were slaughtered by Japanese troops in late 1937. In a new disclosure, the official New China News Agency said that Japan enslaved more than 9 million Chinese laborers and their families during the war and forced them to work in occupied Manchuria in northeastern China and in Japan.
"In Asia, the task of settling accounts with the fascists for their crimes is still tough and necessary," said a recent editorial in People's Daily, the Communist Party organ. "Some Japanese will not admit to the ... Nanjing massacre, let alone ask atonement for Japan's war crimes."
Yet China is edgy about pushing the issue too far and offending Japan. Last week, authorities briefly detained Tong Zeng, a prominent Chinese campaigner for compensation to war victims, after breaking up a news conference at which a Chinese woman described her ordeal as a sex slave to the Japanese Army.
Earlier, Mr. Tong, who has collected signatures from 800,000 war victims in less than six years, had his passport confiscated so he could not accompany a group of war victims to Japan. He is barred from the United Nations women's summit later this month in Beijing when the issue of "comfort women" will be discussed.
Western analysts said the official response is reminiscent of anti-Japanese student riots in the mid-1980s that the government repressed to retain control and not be shown up as less patriotic.
"It has to be understood in the context of internal Chinese politics," Mr. Unger says. "In accusing Japan, you are accusing the government of being soft on Japan."
Despite political and trade tensions, China and Japan are moving inexorably closer, Western analysts say. With trade already topping $60 billion yearly, the two countries are likely to account for at least one-third of each other's trade in 25 years, projects Peter Drysdale, an Australian economist and East Asian specialist.
"In terms of the economic development of the country, this is a good thing," says Zhang Zishun, director of the museum in Jiaozhuanghu.
"In terms of people's feelings, this is difficult to accept."