In Nanjing, Chinese skeptical of Shinzo Abe's big American moment

As Japan's prime minister gives a historic speech to joint session of Congress, ordinary Chinese question whether Mr. Abe acknowledges his country's 'Rape of Nanking' during the late 1930s.

Visitors queue on the Qingming Festival, or Tomb Sweeping Festival, at the Nanjing Massacre Museum, Jiangsu province, China, April 5, 2015. In December 1937, imperial Japanese troops went on the rampage, massacring 300,000 people, looting and burning in what became known as 'The Rape of Nanking.'

As Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe travels through Washington this week, warmly greeted for the most part, the citizens of Nanjing were watching with a somewhat jaundiced eye.

In this southern city, once China's capital, Mr. Abe is a deeply distrusted man. 

It was here, in December 1937, that imperial Japanese troops went on the rampage, massacring 300,000 people, looting and burning in what became known as "The Rape of Nanking." 

It was the worst of a string of Japanese wartime atrocities that Abe has done his best to gloss over since taking office in 2013. It is in that light that ordinary Chinese here are skeptical of the friendly welcome President Obama has extended to the Japanese leader.

Anti-Japanese propaganda playing off Japan's brutal 20th-century history in China has long been part of the accepted narrative here. Critics often note as well that the Chinese government has rarely been forthcoming about its own checkered history. 

Yet Nanjing, where Japanese soldiers appeared to kill civilians with abandon, has a strong emotional and historical significance for Chinese. 

 "I know every country follows its own interests," says Liu Chao, a math student who has just emerged from a visit with his girlfriend to the Nanjing Massacre Museum. "But sitting in front of this museum right now I think what Obama did is inappropriate," regarding the US president's warm welcome at the White House yesterday. 

Building up coral reefs 

Chinese antipathy toward Japan has been inflamed in recent years by a territorial dispute over the Diaoyu Islands, known in Japan as the Senkaku Islands, located in the East China Sea. 

Obama expressed sympathy for Japan, and said he shared Tokyo's concerns about China's increasingly assertive moves both around the Diaoyu – and in the South China Sea, where China has been building up coral reefs with the apparent intention of turning them into airstrips. That could help it press territorial claims against southeast Asian rivals such as Vietnam and the Philippines. 

Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hong Lei today described the US-Japan alliance as "forged during the cold war" period and possibly antiquated, and when asked about the East China Sea dispute took an unequivocal stance: "Diaoyu Dao and its affiliated islands are China's inherent territory. No matter what others say or do, the fact that Diaoyu Dao belongs to China can not be changed." 

The US and Japan have just updated their defense agreement, as Abe moves to give the Japanese armed forces more freedom of action after 60 years of tight constraints. 

The Chinese government has warned that such moves smack of the possibility of renewed militarism, at least unless the Abe administration unequivocally acknowledges and apologizes for Japan's wartime behavior. 

Abe has shown himself reluctant to use the forthrightly apologetic language that some of his predecessors have employed. Indeed he has raised hackles in China by publicly casting doubt on whether Japan's invasion was really an act of "aggression."

72 volumes of massacre evidence 

This has rung alarm bells in some Chinese minds. "Everything Abe has done since he came to power has smelled of war," charges Dai Huidong, a retired factory worker visiting the museum for the first time. "We can never forget our history."

Zhang Xianwen does not fear war, but neither does he trust Abe. One of China's preeminent scholars of the massacre, he and his team have amassed 72 volumes of evidence, a total of 40 million Chinese characters, over the last 30 years. 

"It is impossible that China could have made all this up" as some right-wing Japanese revisionists have claimed, he says, adding, "but Abe is saying wrong things" about his country's history. 

On Tuesday, Prof. Zhang points out, Abe referred during a press conference to comfort women – those coerced into sex slavery by the Japanese army during World War II – as a human trafficking issue, thus playing down the controversy.

It does not shock Chen Nan, an architecture student, that Washington should not hold Abe's feet to the fire on the history issue. "The US is afraid that China is growing too strong and might become a threat so they are using Japan to try to stop us," he says, taking a break from the museum exhibits. 

"Japan might have aggressive ideas," he adds, "but what happened in 1937 won't happen again because China is strong now. Even if it came to a war, it's not clear who'd win."

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