July 7 (Bloomberg) -- Chinese President Xi Jinping criticized Japan’s wartime aggression as he risked escalating tensions between the countries by becoming the first leader to attend the official commemoration of the start of the Sino-Japanese war.
Xi addressed a crowd that included a small number of veteran troops in a nationally televised address this morning at Lugou Bridge, the location of the Japanese invasion 77 years ago. He warned that China and the world will not accept efforts by a “minority” to distort history and facts.
The high-powered government team that attended the ceremony, in front of the Museum of the War of Chinese People’s Resistance Against Japanese Aggression, included Yu Zhengsheng, a member of the elite seven-person Politburo Standing Committee, and vice premier Liu Yandong.
Highlighting the significance of the commemoration is Xi’s latest move to pressure Japan over its wartime past as the nations are embroiled in a dispute over a group of uninhabited islets in the East China Sea. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe roiled relations with a December visit to the Yasukuni shrine which honors the country’s fallen soldiers, including war criminals.
“For China, 1945, the end of World War II, is unfinished business and there is an increasing urgency among the country’s elites to use the events of the war years to make a case that China is owed a historical debt that should be repaid in the present,” said Rana Mitter, professor of the History and Politics of Modern China at Oxford University and author of the 2013 book “Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937–1945.”
Xi today unveiled a sculpture commemorating the war in the company of Chinese soldiers who fought in the conflict as well as a group of teenagers. It was the first time a Chinese head of state attended the commemorative activities on the anniversary, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
“Nobody can change history and facts,” Xi said, according to Xinhua. “Anyone who intends to deny, distort or beautify history will not find agreement among Chinese people and people of all other countries.”
Japan, which invaded northeast China in September 1931, instigated a clash with Chinese troops on July 7, 1937 at Lugou Bridge before entering Wanping near Beijing. The incident was regarded as the start of a full-scale Japanese invasion and the beginning of the Sino-Japanese war ahead of World War II.
The purpose of marking the 77th anniversary of the bridge incident was to “remember history, commemorate the lost lives, treasure peace and caution about the future,” Xi said.
Japan’s cabinet passed a resolution July 1 expanding the role of the military to include the defense of allies, reinterpreting the pacifist constitution in place for nearly 70 years. Xi and South Korean President Park Geun Hye condemned the move during a bilateral meeting in Seoul.
“There is still a minority group of people who ignore historical facts, who ignore the tens of thousands of lives lost in the war, who go against the tide of history and deny and even beautify the history of aggression and harm international mutual trust,” Xi said today.
The government has stepped up its rhetoric against Japan’s wartime history, with its State Archive Administration last week beginning publishing a series of 45 confessions made by Japanese war criminals.
Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga responded to Xi’s comments by saying that he was paying close attention to China’s actions on the issue of history.
“Our country’s progress as a peaceful nation after the war has been highly evaluated by the international community,” Suga said at a regular press briefing. “What’s needed now is for national leaders of the Asia-Pacific to build cooperative relations so that we can deal with the problems facing international society in a forward-looking manner.”
China’s Premier Li Keqiang reinforced its message at a joint press briefing with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, urging that history must not be forgotten.
“Today is an important day, a day the Chinese people must always bear firmly in mind,” said Premier Li. “We must always remember history to correctly face up to the past, only then can we really open up the future and grasp peace for humanity.”
The official People’s Daily today published an editorial marking the anniversary, saying Abe’s shrine visit and the major shift in the defense policy showed “right-wing” forces were rapidly expanding and that militarism was rearing its head in Japan.
Suga said today the government was willing to spend about a year debating a package of bills to put the cabinet resolution into practice. The laws will take at least three to four months to formulate, he said.
Suga’s comments came after the latest in a series of media polls found support for Abe’s government had fallen to its lowest since he took office after the cabinet resolution.
The Japan News Network found 52.4 percent of respondents to a survey conducted on July 5-6 supported Abe, down more than 10 percentage points from a month earlier. Only 32 percent said they agreed with the cabinet decision, while 57 percent said they did not. The television news network surveyed 1,200 people by phone and gave a margin of error of 2.8 percent.
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rosalind Mathieson at firstname.lastname@example.org Neil Western, Nicholas Wadhams