Nanjing Massacre Becomes a Political Football: Adam Minter

To whom does China’s history belong? For most of the past 60 years, the ruling Communist Party has chosen the historical narrative that best suits its political prerogatives. But in recent years, China’s netizens, aided by Internet archives and social media, have begun to wrest back control of China's story.

Thanks to Takashi Kawamura, the diplomatically challenged and utterly tactless mayor of Nagoya, Japan, the party and the people's views now seem to be converging.

On Feb. 20, Kawamura delivered an address to Chinese officials in Nanjing, the sister city to Nagoya. In it, he publicly questioned whether the Nanjing Massacre -- the 1937 rape, torture and murder of an estimated 300,000 Chinese civilians -- had actually occurred. He said he believed only "conventional acts of combat" took place that couldn’t possibly have killed that many people.

The initial backlash online was predictably fierce. A wide range of Chinese microbloggers equated Japanese deniers with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s Holocaust-denying president, including a microblogger in Zhejiang province who wrote on Sina Weibo, China's most popular microblog:

The president of Iran denied the Nazi slaughter of Jews before the UN assembly, and Israeli and other officials from the West all left the meeting in protest. The mayor of Nagoya denied the Nanjing massacre and so the Nanjing missions should suspend all talks and ... cancel all communications between the two cities.

Why the populist outrage? For many, Kawamura’s words represented the latest affront in what they perceive as a decades-long effort by Japan to deny responsibility for a crime that has become as central to Chinese national identity as the Holocaust is to Israel's.

It’s no secret Chinese populism can unleash volatile emotions, especially when directed against Japan. But the Chinese people can just as easily rail against the Communist Party whenever it is perceived as being less than firm, or honest, in standing up for their national honor.

Take, for example, the unfortunate example of Liu Zhiwei, a senior Nanjing Communist Party official who was present for Kawamura’s remarks. According to Japanese press accounts, Liu didn't object to Kawamura’s denial, but rather spoke in diplomatic niceties: “Nanjing people adore peace. We learn the history to safeguard the peace.”

As news of this flaccid response went public in China, the fury against Liu often exceeded the vitriol for Kawamura. Cao Jian, a reporter with Shanghai Five Star Sports, wrote on Sina Weibo:

After the mayor of Nagoya denied the Nanjing massacre the vice mayor of Nanjing still exchanged gifts with him. In my opinion that’s not so weird because the officials’ first instinct is always stability above everything else. They aren’t indignant about the history of the Nanjing massacre due to the fact that they condone neo-imperialist economic massacres and cultural genocide.

More than two weeks after Kawamura’s remarks, the conversation continues at a slow burn. It's charged every few days by Kawamura’s refusal to retract his denial, the governor of Tokyo’s recent comments in support of Kawamura’s denial and the Chinese ambassador to Japan’s refusal to meet with Kawamura until he retracts his comments.

But online, much of the anger has increasingly morphed into a concern that Chinese scholars lack the resources to create credible research that might effectively refute the statements of Japanese denialists, like Kawamura.

Wei En, a marketing director in Beijing, offered the soft version of this worry in a Sina Weibo post:

The data that records the number of Jews who died in the Second World War matches the background information and is ironclad … To reverse the attitude of minor Japanese officials, the first step is to become as rigorous as them.

Other responses were less gentle. This critique, posted by Nanjing-based writer Zhang Hong, was particularly cutting:

The research standard on the Nanjing Massacre has been maintained about where it was 10 years ago. It’s no use just to yell, issue “serious statements” or seek emotional catharsis. The government needs to investigate, collect testimony and research more carefully and systematically -- though it is kind of late. This is just one of the mistakes made by a certain regime.

History is political in China, and few events are more politically charged than the Nanjing Massacre.

In 1937, Nanjing was the capital city for China’s anti-Communist Nationalists, who suffered most of the casualties. Under Mao Zedong, many were reluctant to memorialize the critical role the Nationalists played in defeating the Japanese, much less the casualties they suffered. The Nanjing Massacre was therefore ignored and off-limits for almost 50 years. But in 1982 the Japanese education ministry released textbooks that downplayed Japan's war-time atrocities. Chinese authorities, anxious to retake the narrative, began to open the incident to discussion.

Today, it’s widely accepted in China that the Japanese have devoted far more resources to defining and investigating the event. For example, the Chinese officially claim that 300,000 civilians were killed; this is based on the high estimate international war-crimes tribunals and local courts made after World War II. Meanwhile, many non-Chinese denialists respond that it was simply impossible for 300,000 people to be killed by a small Japanese force in a six-week period. A precise Chinese rebuttal, though, is difficult: The Japanese destroyed records of their actions in the city. Chinese historians have been able to name just 10,311 actual victims of the massacre.

For some, this inability to account for more victims represents much more than just a failure of research, but indicates the Communist Party's patterned callousness toward human tragedy. In this context, one microblogger in Sichuan province went so far as to invoke the party’s alleged efforts to suppress the names of students killed in poorly built schools that collapsed during the catastrophic 2008 Wenchuan earthquake:

The names of the victims on the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall's "Wailing Wall" totals 10,311 … Hiroshima announced a total of 253,008 victims of the atomic bomb based on accurate records. But up until today, the list of students killed in the Wenchuan Earthquake remains sensitive.

It’s not just semi-anonymous microbloggers criticizing the party’s approach to controlling history. A few respected voices are also beginning to enter the argument. That they can even contemplate doing so is a remarkable step toward a more complete and transparent understanding of the Nanjing Massacre.

Of these, none is more interesting than Wang Jinsi, a young collector and director of the Chinese War of Resistance Against Japan Society, who has garnered considerable renown for his writings on China-Japan relations during World War II.

On March 5, he published a remarkable and lengthy blog post titled “Let’s Look at How the Chinese Have Tampered with the Nanjing Massacre.” It opens by acknowledging that Kawamura and other Japanese deniers should be condemned, but only keeping in mind that Chinese, too, have manipulated the massacre for “practical political” ends. He wrote with particular care and contempt about the manner in which the Nanjing Massacre was disrespected during the Cultural Revolution:

Affected by extreme leftist thought in the era of "class struggle" ... Chinese people went to Japan’s anti-American, anti-war memorial to atomic bomb victims, but nobody wanted to pay homage to our compatriots in the Nanjing Massacre. During the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards proclaimed that the Nanjing Massacre "killed the Nationalists,” and the ruins of the Nanjing Massacre were decimated. In academia, research on the Nanjing Massacre was still a restricted area.

In the last week, Wang’s blog has been widely  excerpted and promoted via Sina Weibo and other microblogs. There have been no obvious attempts to censor the chatter -- and that’s notable. Even five years ago, references to the Cultural Revolution were tightly controlled by censors; such a double-whammy critique of the Cultural Revolution and its impact on the Nanjing Massacre would have been a surefire target for censorship. That Wang’s article has seemingly been tolerated is an important indicator that the Communist Party is ready for a more robust discussion on at least one of China’s politically sensitive historical events. One hopes this discussion is the precursor to more.

(Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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