China’s Past and Preparing for their Future

The balance of power in the international system is shifting.  The United States has to make room for rising powers, the most prominent of which is of course China.  The West need to react to this change but their hands could be tied if they seek to satisfy other allies in East Asia.  The unresolved history between China and Japan produces a hostile relationship between the two powers, as shown by the heated debate over the Diaoyu islands, and the West needs to be aware of this.  

A continuing issue between China and Japan is the Rape of Nanking which took place in 1937.  Invading Japanese forces slaughtered an estimated 300,000 Chinese and many more were displaced or abused, but this is not what you will hear many people in Japan say.  A culture of denial exists in Japan and the events of the Rape of Nanking are continually disputed or outright denied.  Unlike Holocaust Denial in Europe, this denial of atrocities goes unpunished and even comes from government officials. Shigeto Nagano, a former Minister of Justice in Japan, denied the Rape of Nanking ever took place.  Although Shigeto Nagano eventually resigned from his post under political pressure he did receive backing from sections of the Japanese media.  An article in Shukan Shincho defended Nagano and used words like “theory” to describe the Rape of Nanking.  Relegating the death of 300,000 people to a “theory” is understandably unpopular in China.

The massacre is remembered in China.  It is remembered as a war crime that has not been properly answered for.  The Nanking Massacre Memorial Hall (NMMH) is a symbol of the collective Chinese memory of the event; it contains exposed graves containing skeletal remains and various examples of the individual cases of violence that took place over the course of the massacre.  The overall message of the NMMH is that a war crime took place here and it will not be forgotten, China still expects an apology from Japan.  As described in Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, ‘several generations have now been taught of Japan’s crimes and of its failure, to this day, to atone for them.  Sixty years later, the ghosts of Nanking still haunt Chinese-Japanese relations’.

On an official visit to Japan in 2007, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao urged Japan to face up to its actions and apologise for the atrocities it committed on Chinese soil.  Despite this political pressure from China there are still senior political figures in Japan who will not accept any of China’s calls for an apology.  As recently as February of 2012 tensions have been heightened due to the Rape of Nanking, Takashi Kawamura, mayor of Nagoya in Japan, denied that the massacre ever took place and as a result the then Chinese Vice Premier, Li Keqiang, cancelled a visit to Japan.  Both visits described were supposed to be in celebration of improved diplomatic ties between China and Japan but in each instance the two powers have come to loggerheads over the Rape of Nanking.

Where is the West in all this?  The West was present during the Rape of Nanking and the Rape of Nanking could also come to shape Western alliances in the region.  A powerful and well liked Japan was an essential political ally for the western side of the iron curtain in the Cold War as a beacon of what can be achieved using the western capitalist model.  This goes to explain how the Rape of Nanking is described by Iris Chang and many others as a “forgotten holocaust”.  Japan was after all an ally of Nazi Germany in World War Two so Western nations, such as the United States, had to distance Japan from any potential blame from atrocities in the war as they needed an ally in the Far East with the coming political climate of the Cold War.  The lack of exposure the Rape of Nanking received in the West can be put down to the need for an ally in Asia, this selective remembering of history in the West is dictated by the political need of the major powers.  The Rape of Nanking had been conveniently forgotten by the West.

Two westerners played parts of note in the Rape of Nanking.  John Rabe was a German who kept note of the actions of Japanese troops, provided shelter to Chinese civilians and sent letters to the Japanese demanding that aid be allowed into the city.  Minnie Vautrin was an American who used American flags to deter Japanese troops from entering a college campus in order to protect Chinese civilians from advancing Japanese troops.  These two figures will become essential to the West as they will be used to show that Western nations have been on China’s side if Western powers decide to side with China and break their close cooperation with Japan.

Joining China in voicing demands for Japan to apologise for the Rape of Nanking could be invaluable in forging bonds with the rising Chinese power for powers like the European Union and even the United States.  Given the relationship between the Chinese and Japanese, the West cannot hope to remain friendly with both.  Whether the island dispute heats up or another matter rears its head, the Western powers will have to choose their side and, when they do, China and Japan’s shared history will be addressed or swept under the rug.