A quiet anniversary: The Nanking Massacre remembered — and forgotten

All conventional wisdom to the contrary, Japan and China cooperate closely in key policies, most notably trade. In return for economic favors from Tokyo, Beijing has never pursued claims for reparations over Japan’s aggression of the 1930s and early 1940s. It has even blocked victims of the Nanking massacre suing Tokyo in international courts. [Article as published on the editorial page of the International Herald Tribune.]

NANJING: For observers of Sino-Japanese relations the big news in the past week has been that there has been no news. Although last Thursday marked the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the notorious Nanking massacre, political activists in both Japan and China have been notable – so far at least – for their restraint.

Given that the massacre, which began on Dec. 13, 1937, and continued for six weeks, was one of the worst atrocities in military history, the Chinese people would be forgiven for expressing their feelings in less muted terms. On conservative estimates, at least 150,000 people were annihilated in what was then the Chinese capital of Nanking (the city now known as Nanjing) and in many cases their deaths took place in circumstances of almost unbelievable cruelty and depravity.

Although it may be too soon to conclude that the Chinese people have forever put recriminations behind them, relations between Japan and China actually have grown considerably closer than is generally understood in the West.

The story goes back to the early 1970s, when just months after President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing, Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka made a similar visit. Amid burgeoning trade links, the once icy Sino-Japanese relationship immediately began to thaw. Japanese corporations started making substantial investments in China in the 1980s and, as the years have gone by, Japanese officials have become ever more generous in permitting large transfers of advanced Japanese manufacturing technology. They have also advanced vast amounts of official economic aid. For decades, China has been by far the largest beneficiary of Japan’s huge aid program.

Japan moreover has been highly effective behind the scenes in helping China take an ever more prominent role in world affairs. As early as 1972, six years ahead of the United States, Japan recognized the Beijing Communist regime as the true government of China. Japan went on to help China join the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and crucially the World Trade Organization.

After the Tiananmen massacre, Japanese officials took the lead in rehabilitating the Beijing regime and crucially they insisted that the West should de-link human rights from trade policy.

Clearly Beijing has much to thank Tokyo for. However, the rapprochement has hardly been entirely one-sided. The Japanese have insisted on important quid pro quos. In particular, though this has been little reported in the West, they have induced Beijing to acquiesce in an intransigent Japanese policy of refusing to make any official compensation payments in respect of war-time atrocities.

Chinese leaders have also cooperated with Japan’s agenda in another important respect: trade. While other developed nations bitterly complain about Chinese trade barriers, the Japanese have proved spectacularly successful in exporting to China. Thus, according to the CIA’s figures, China now buys more than twice as much from Japan as from the United States and, as of 2006, actually incurred a deficit of $8 billion on its bilateral trade with Japan (compared with a surplus of $232 billion with the United States).

In a remarkable irony, evidence of the Sino-Japanese rapprochement is widely apparent even in Nanjing. On a visit to the city last summer I was startled to see how large the Japanese economic footprint had become. The best hotels seemed to be teeming with visiting Japanese executives. So were the best eateries, not least the city’s many Japanese restaurants.

Meanwhile there were virtually no visible reminders of what had happened in 1937 – at least not in the city’s main commercial districts. True the city boasts a memorial museum but, located far off the beaten track, it requires a special trip across the Qinhuai river. That is not something visiting Japanese executives are likely to have time for. Nor is it something their pragmatic Chinese hosts are likely to suggest.

Eamonn Fingleton is the author of “In the Jaws of the Dragon: America’s Fate in an Era of Chinese Hegemony,” which will be published in March.

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