Nanjing, China (AP) — Chinese officials struck a tempered tone on the 80th anniversary of the Nanking Massacre on Wednesday, saying China would “look forward” and deepen friendship with its neighbor Japan despite historical misgivings.
Chinese President Xi Jinping led a citywide minute of silence but did not speak as Yu Zhengsheng, head of China’s parliamentary advisory body, urged China and Japan to draw lessons from history and look forward to the future.
China has frequently criticized Japan for not showing sufficient contrition for the brutality of its expansionist campaign that swept across Asia during the first half of the 20th century.
China’s government and a 1946 international postwar tribunal say at least 200,000 civilians were killed by Japanese troops entering China’s then capital in December 1937 following bitter street fighting in Shanghai.
Some right-wing Japanese politicians, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, have downplayed the death toll or denied outright that the Nanking atrocity even happened.
Wearing a white flower on his lapel, Xi watched somberly on Wednesday as Chinese soldiers bearing large funeral wreaths marched slowly past a memorial showing the figure 300,000 — the number of massacre victims, according to official Chinese estimates.
Denial by conservative Japanese quarters of the country’s wartime history has frequently incensed neighbors that bore the brunt of its militarism and colonial rule, including China, South Korea and the Philippines, and it continues to fuel debate in contemporary Japan.
A Japanese hotel chain attracted condemnation in January when it distributed a book questioning Japan’s use of forced sex workers and calling the Nanking Massacre a fake. Nanking, an ancient Chinese capital 320 kilometers (200 miles) west of Shanghai, is now commonly known as Nanjing.
China’s ruling Communist Party, particularly under Xi, has often stoked nationalism and allowed anti-Japanese sentiment to build. But relations have improved in recent months, with Xi and Abe posing together with smiles and pledging to seek a “fresh start” at a November summit in Vietnam.
Yu, a former member of the Communist Party’s top leadership circle, did not touch on the historical controversies Wednesday but said China and Japan share a long, rich history and should promote friendship for generations to come.
China has raised alarms in Asia with its more assertive military and diplomatic posture in recent years, particularly over territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Yu said in his address that Beijing would “never be hegemonic or expansionist.”
“It will never impose the tragic experience that it experienced on other peoples,” he said.
In an op-ed in the Financial Times Chinese edition, the French and German ambassadors to Beijing said their countries’ experience as opponents in the war’s European theater showed that “perpetrators need to recognize their crimes, and victims need to forgive” to achieve a measure of reconciliation.
Reflecting the occasion, the Nanking memorial was far more low-key than China’s 2015 celebration of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, which unfurled as a propaganda showpiece with a massive military parade observed by Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin from atop Tiananmen Gate.
China similarly pressured foreign ambassadors in Beijing to attend the Nanking memorial — but many did not, according to a Beijing-based diplomat.
“They fear being instrumentalized by propaganda,” the diplomat said.