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Wartime History and Beijing’s Response to the New Defence Minister in Tokyo

In the wake of the Upper House elections in Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has completed a reshuffling of his cabinet. As described by Japan hand Michael Cucek, it was not a particularly inspiring set of choices made by the newly-consolidated Prime Minister: Taro Aso (the right-wing former PM perhaps best recalled for his off-the-cuff endorsement of Hitler’s constitutional revision style) remains at the helm in Finance, for one.

The biggest waves internationally are being made by Tomomi Inada, the newly-appointed Minister of Defence. Inada is one of the most prominent revisionist voices in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party; hailing from the Kansai region, she has been a regular visitor to Yasukuni Shrine, authored a book about flaws in the Chinese trial of two particularly deadly Japanese officers at the Nanking Massacre, and was involved in an LDP inquiry into problems with the postwar Tokyo Trials (known formally as the International Military Tribunal for the Far East). Are we seeing a theme here?

This appointment was bound to meet with immediate friction from Japan’s neighbours. Foremost, South Korea, where last December’s controversial but potentially transformative “comfort women” settlement is just now being implemented:


But probably more significant in the long run will be Inada’s impact on Sino-Japanese relations. Beijing state media’s response to her appointment has been unsurprising, in part because Inada herself provided so much material in her first two days in office for discussion.

While English-language coverage by agencies mentioned the revisionist views, a look at the transcripts of her conversations with reporters, and a read of the Chinese and Japanese coverage of those discussions, indicates that her appointment has already thrown up a number of new (well, old) historical obstacles.

About two-thirds of Huanqiu Shibao‘s introduction to her appointment, written by Wang Xuan, dealt with history issues and her views. (Readers will recall that Huanqiu Shibao is the Chinese-language Global Times, a 5-times-per-week mainland tabloid owned by People’s Daily and known for its pugilistic nationalism). Let’s take these issues one at a time, in the sequence they appear in the Beijing article:

1. Focus on the Nanking Massacre (1937-38) through the prism of the ‘Hundred-Man Killing Contest’

Quite a way to be introduced to the new appointee, is it not? Is this Beijing blowing the nationalistic trumpet perhaps, twisting Inada’s identity and trying to give the PRC public a completely distorted view of an otherwise moderate civil servant?

Unfortunately, to the second question, the answer appears to be ‘no.’ Inada did indeed discuss the ‘Hundred-Man Killing Contest’ at her 4 August press conference. Huanqiu quotes here as saying that she ‘did not believe in the “Hundred man Killing Contest”‘ and that ‘the number [of victims in Nanking] was very important’; in other words, criticizing China’s stance that 300,000 were killed.

Just for the record, here is the full exchange on this issue in Japanese, from the Ministry of Defence website:







Sankei covers the issue here. Inada, it should be noted, has a very explicit paper trail on the Nanking issue, and has covered herself more or less permanently from any potential attack from the right. Her 2007 book, entitled The Trial of the Hundred-Man Decapitation in Nanking [百人斬り裁判から南京へ / Hyakunin-giri Saiban kara Nankin he] purports to take apart manufactured elements in the famous ‘Hundred Man Killing Contest’ and the Nanking Massacre narrative generally. Inada NANKING book cover

2. Japan didn’t ‘invade’ anyone in the Second World War

Having gotten that out of the way, the Huanqiu piece moves on through her views on constitutional revision. After which Shinzo Abe’s declaration of semi-apology for the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War is covered; Inada suggests that she agrees with the spirit of Abe’s remarks, but also that it is a matter of opinion with respect to the verb one employs when discussing Japan’s actions in Asia in the 1930s or 40s. She does not seem to agree that Japan ‘invaded’ anyone, suggesting that her view is more in line with that of right-wing manga author Kobayashi Yoshinori and others who believe that Japan was an anti-colonial liberating force whose intentions were simply misunderstood.

Again, here is that exchange in the original Japanese, which appears to have been slightly misquoted by Huanqiu (the words ‘invasion /侵略’ or ‘war of aggression /侵略戦争’ are never spoken by Inada at all):



3. Leaving room for ambiguity on Yasukuni Shrine visits 

After dealing quickly with conflict with China in the South China Sea (the subject of much discussion on the Ministry of Defence’s website) and the one area where China and Japan are presumably in full accord — North Korean missile tests — the Huanqiu article comes back yet again to the history issue, discussing whether or not Inada will go to Yasukuni Shrine on August 15. This major flashpoint of conflicting war memory was indeed discussed by Inada in her introductory press conference:



If all of this didn’t portend enough friction, the Huanqiu notes Inada’s past rhetorical challenges to the legality of the 1946-48 Tokyo Trials, which — in addition to giving Caroline Kennedy and John Kerry headaches — happens to run directly counter to an absolutely massive theme in Chinese propaganda in 2015-16.

Xi Jinping is going to have a whole lot more material to work with these days, so buckle up and mark your anti-Japanese calendars for 15 August, 3 September, 18 September, and 13 December. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Recent Work on Sino-North Korean Relations, History, and Chinese Foreign Policy

The arbitrarily configured 70th anniversary of the Korean Workers’ Party, and the presence of a high-level Chinese delegation in Pyongyang, created a need for some commentary and context.  This post aggregates some of things I did in response to the event, and in the two months since the “August DMZ loudspeaker crisis” earlier this year.

On October 10, I was quoted in the Washington Post, and the Neue Zurcher Zeitung. The next day, I had a somewhat general radio interview with BBC Radio Wales and then appeared on BBC World Service, the noon television broadcast, in an interview which touched on the Chinese-North Korean relationship and purges in North Korea.  

On 1 October, I did a joint presentation in Leeds with Christopher Green about current events and historical resonances along the Sino-North Korean border. Full audio and a write-up for the event is available.

I did podcasts with Asia News Weekly and Ankit Panda of The Diplomat, both of which focused on China-North Korea relations. 

While Xi Jinping was in Seattle, I published a piece looking at anti-corruption efforts, illegal activities, and trade along the Chinese border with North Korea, focusing on the city of Dandong. 

Along the same thematic and geographical lines (but with more of a focus on the North Korean side of the border), an essay of mine was being published in a book published in Germany, edited by an intelligence specialist in Berlin. 

The Beijing “Victory Day” Parade on 3 September was another point of emphasis for global media interested in China’s foreign relations. I was quoted in The Economist, in a piquantly titled article “He Shells, She Shells” published in the print edition of the magazine focusing on inter-Korean relations under the Chinese banner.  

World War II memory in China came into momentary focus with an essay on Chongqing, against the backdrop of the massive and often historically uncomfortable preparations for the 3 September “Victory Day.” 

I also spoke to The Guardian‘s Beijing correspondent, Tom Phillips, about the CCP’s newly central role in state-guided depictions of the 1943 Cairo Conference.

In the Miscellaneous file, the BBC quoted me about the “non-disappearing Moranbong Band” and I published a big document analysis about North Korean human rights.  

On the conference circuit, I presented a major piece of new research on the Sinchon Massacre (which occurred during the Korean War, and was followed by a Chinese occupation of the town) at SOAS in London, at a very ambitious conference. 

Most of the Sinchon research came out of time I spent in the National Archives in London in early August. Later in September, I went back to Ulster (Northern Ireland) and the Republic of Ireland for an incredible set of papers — fortunately, I did not need to present anything at this particular event, but learned a great deal from Barak Kushner and others. 

Finally, I published an essay with The Guardian during the “August loudspeaker crisis” and a long treatment of Sino-North Korean relations with The Diplomat.




On the ‘Cairo Declaration’ Fiasco

While the tendency of the CCP to insert itself at the main junctures of Chinese history in the 20th century is anything but new, there has been an increasing alignment with the earlier Republic of China that has been quite pronounced, I would argue, since at least 2005. For the past ten years, scholars have interpreted this (and the inclusion of ROC troops in various war museums) mainly as a means of increasing cross-Straits rapprochement and downplaying the ferocity of the internecine violence that followed the Japanese surrender.

World War II, the Great Leap Forward and its famine, and the Cultural Revolution are frequently seen as the great traumas of China’s 20th century, but the Chinese civil war (1945-1950) is right up there in terms of how much physical and emotional agony it caused.

What is different now, in 2015, is that Xi Jinping and his mighty bureaucracy seem absolutely determined to depict the PRC as ‘present at the creation’ of the postwar global order, a global order which they interpret as being constructed around the constraining of Japanese power, cognizance of Japanese brutality, and punitive toward Japan — in the sense of keeping Japan very much in the metaphorical defendant’s docket and recalling also the Tokyo War Crimes Trials.

The move to align contemporary Japan with its destabilizing and guilty past as clear implications and utility for China in East Asia today, as the Beijing government and the PLA is increasingly seen as the foremost challenge to the strategic architecture of the region.

According to the trailer of the film, I don’t believe the producers have gone so far as to send Mao to Cairo in the film, but placing him at the vanguard of establishing the global order in 1943 seems to be stretching things.

At this point, when he was in his cave in Yanan, Mao had yet to meet a single representative of the American government, and the Dalai Lama, who was not even 10 years old, got more correspondence from the US President. While Mao had written some important anti-Japanese treatises in 1937 and 1938, by the time the Cairo Declaration came around, he was primarily concerned with expand his inland base area against Nationalist government resistance and calculating his best chances to overtake Chiang Kai-shek after the Japanese surrendered. The United Front was essentially a shell after 1940.  Mao was extremely well-informed about how the wider war in Europe, in China, and the Pacific was going, but to depict him as the mental crucible of China’s World War II international policy is overreaching.

This short essay was originally submitted to The Guardian in response to a request for a comment; Tom Phillips is thanked for soliciting my views. See: Tom Phillips, ‘Bloggers ridicule Chinese film placing Mao Zedong at wartime conference,’ The Guardian, 17 August 2015.

Image: US envoy Patrick Hurley speaks with Mao Zedong & comrades in Yan’an in August, 1945, prior to flying with Mao to Chongqing on 27 August for the purpose of negotiating an agreement with Chiang Kai-shek (via US National Archives and Records Administration). 

Old Chapters, New Chapters: The Memory Wars in East Asia

From the very beginning of the so-called ‘post war,’ the territorial and temporal parameters of the memory wars between China and Japan were never drawn particularly cleanly. The war ended formally in Tokyo Harbour on 3 September 1945, but it took nearly another week for Okamura Yasuji to formally surrender to General He Yingqin at Nanjing. It then took months (in some rare cases, years) for Japanese troops to disengage themselves from the mainland.

After 1949, China’s dissatisfaction with the optics of the Nanjing surrender ceremony occasionally surfaced, with accusations that the Guomindang were in bed with General Okamura (they were). Since 2005, the Beijing government has sponsored huge oil paintings and wax statues constructed to emphasize the ahistorical servility of the Japanese general to the representative of the Chinese nation.

In recent months, the Chinese Communist Party has gone beyond expressing verbal frustration with Abe Shinzo’s revisionism and turned again to wax (and online) artworks of inverted national humiliation. Xinhua praised the wax reconstruction of an orchestrated event in Shenyang 1956 — the trial of Japanese war criminals during a period of Sino-Japanese diplomatic warming. The two years’ worth of written confessions of these men ranged from the banal — intelligence collection in northeast China in 1913 — to plentifully grotesque instances of rape, plunder, and bacteriological weapons research.

Read the rest of the essay (published on 16 March 2015) at the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute Blog.

Xi Jinping’s Tripod: Updating the National Humiliation Narrative in Nanjing

This essay was originally published at the China Policy Institute Blog at the University of Nottingham on 15 December 2014, under the title ‘Xi Jinping’s Nanking Massacre Commemoration and China’s Anti-Japanese Calendar,’ and is republished here with permission. 

2014 has been a banner year for the Chinese Communist Party’s politics of historical commemoration of the War of Resistance against Japan (1937-1945). As the Party has faced a host of internal challenges to its legitimacy from within and around its periphery, Xi Jinping and the CCP have remained steadfast in maintaining public momentum in their ongoing struggle with the Abe government in Tokyo.

Unable to check Abe and his cohort’s perceived moves toward the fringes of historical revisionism, the CCP has responded by doing what it already knows how to do: It has raised the volume of critique and further globalized the ongoing Sino-Japanese history dispute. China has moved to reinforce its own existing state memes about the war with Japan through investment in education, more money being poured into anti-Japanese museums, mandating more quasi-relevant television programs and movies, and the dissemination of history education/propaganda. Beijing has also recognized how receptive the global community is to the narrative of wholesale Chinese victimization at Japanese hands during the Second World War and prior.

The recent establishment of two new national commemorative dates in China intended to criticize Japan reflects the CCP’s doubling down on the wartime victimization discourse. The Chinese People’s Congress decreed on 27 February 2014 that the PRC would henceforth create two new public days of commemoration, falling on 30 September (‘Martyrs’ Day’) and 13 December (‘National Memorial Day for Nanjing Massacre Victims’).

Recent scholarship by Chang-Tai Hung, who has written extensively on nationalism and mobilization culture in both Republican and Communist China, logically told The New York Times that the construction of the new dates on the public calendar was in part an effort by the PRC to maintain the initiative when it comes to dealing with Japan.

Xi Jinping’s appearance at the 13 December memorial event was particularly carefully choreographed, and formed the spine of the entire country’s media narrative for that day. In his speech (full text) at the Memorial Hall for the Victims of the Nanking Massacre, Xi’s language was fittingly emotive and pictorial. He evoked the ‘foul wind and bloody rain [腥风血雨]‘ of the Japanese occupation of the city in 1937-38. While his speech did not dwell excessively on Japanese atrocities, depictions of these were readily supplied by state media. Xi’s tour around the massive Memorial Hall included a look at its grisly photos. Survivor accounts on television did more of the heavy lifting, and a hard-working television crew from Jiangsu TV kept the flame burning all morning.

For listeners concerned with trends in Chinese history writing, Xi’s speech was striking insofar as it marked the full obliteration between any historiographical reticence by the CCP to embrace the Republic of China and its imperatives, at least when it comes to the war with Japan. Xi’s description of the war itself is a case in point:

On 7 July 1937, The Japanese invaders unleashed a full-scale invasion [of China], bringing huge destruction to the Chinese people, burning down Chinese cities and villages, spreading destruction in the four cardinal directions, extinguishing Chinese lives, exacerbating difficulties, bringing hunger and death across thousands of li of Chinese territory.

Xi even decried the fact that one-third of all the architecture in the city was destroyed in the invasion of Nanjing. The fact that Nanjing was the capital of the Republic of China, an entity which prior to the Second United Front had been devoted to the very destruction of the Chinese Communisty Party, is elided over here. The need to imply a United Front with the Kuomintang today means that the historical United Front is no longer of interest to the CCP or as part of war memory.

Xi’s inclusion of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East was hardly surprising, but his endorsement of the work done by Nanjing military court run by Shi Mei’ao from 1946-1949 was quite revealing, insofar as it indicates how PRC legal scholars are absorbing the precedents of the ROC very much as their own. Historical ROC/Guomindang imperatives and policies are being rapidly absorbed by the CCP with respect not just to Tibet, but to the South China Sea territorial issue. The identification of the People’s Republic of China with the Tokyo Trials and Guomindang-led legal initiatives during the Chinese civil war should perhaps not be considered a surprise.

As with so many other aspects of Xi Jinping’s propaganda, there was present in Nanjing on 13 December kind of uncomfortable mixture of modern dictatorship, simplified nods to any given ancient Chinese practice that might be considered useful, and reprising of ideas that would be more at home in China’s Destiny than Quotations from Chairman Mao. The main example here is the large bronze tripod unveiled by Xi at the ceremony, which ‘symbolizes national wealth’ and future prosperity. This was incongruous in the extreme, and an obvious bid to graft the familiar ‘strong nation, wealthy military’ narrative onto the unrelenting pessimism and humiliation narrative that Nanking invariably represents. We are the peaceful ones here seems to be the secondary message. Again, it was a gesture more reminiscent of Chiang Kai-shek (or Li Hongzhang) than Mao Zedong.

Under Xi Jinping, the anti-Japanese commemoration calendar in China is now getting rather full. In addition to the implicit dates of commemoration of anti-Japanese demonstrations (4 May 1919, 9 December 1935), one wonders if the 7 July anniversary of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident and full-scale Japanese invasion of China was somehow inadequate to embrace the national humiliation narrative.

The Shenyang Trials of 1956: Presenting the Resurrection of Defeat in Heidelberg

The University of Heidelberg will be hosting a conference later this month on post-1945 war crimes trials in East Asia, at which I will be presenting. An abstract and bio follow:

The Shenyang Trials of 1956: The Resurrection of Defeat 

Using now-closed files from the Chinese Foreign Ministry Archive and contemporary sources in Chinese, this paper, investigates the role of the Shenyang Trials of 1956 in configuring China’s postwar position and asserting a specifically Chinese communist response to Japanese war crimes. Within the matrix of East Asian war crimes trials of Japanese defendants, the Shenyang Trial was peculiar in that it served as the preeminent Chinese forum for prosecuting crimes committed under the auspices of the Japanese colonial experiment of Manchukuo. While the Khabarovsk Trials of December 1949 also exposed crimes committed in Manchuria with an emphasis on bacteriological weapons research, the Shenyang Trials held up Pu Yi, the puppet emperor, and various officials throughout the broader Manchukuo system to scrutiny. With the Shenyang Trials, the CCP sought to move China beyond gratefulness for the Soviet intervention which had, in fact, crushed the puppet state and on toward a more assertive portrayal of Chinese Communist Party justice. They also exemplified how the government used show trials in the 1950s to undergird public support, serve as instruments of propaganda internationally, and frame a model of Japanese postcolonial guilt in the face of rather contingent Chinese benevolence that persists to this day in the People’s Republic of China.

About the speaker:

Adam CATHCART is Lecturer in Chinese history at the University of Leeds (UK). Under the supervision of Donald Jordan, he wrote his dissertation on the subject of early postwar Chinese responses to Japan, and subsequently researched in the PRC Foreign Ministry Archive, publishing a handful of articles on investigations and politicized trials of Japanese war crimes in the early PRC. He also maintains an active research program in Sino-North Korean relations and transnational aspects of the Korean War, with a focus on eastern Manchuria.

New Scholarship on China’s War Against Japan: Rana Mitter and the Wiles Lectures at Queen’s University Belfast

Rana Mitter is among the most dynamic, productive, and visible historians working on East Asia in the UK today. Dr. Mitter will be delivering a series of uniquely prestigious and endowed lectures in Belfast, at Queen’s University, from 28-31 May of this year. The series title is ‘Fighting Fate: Wartime Society and the Making of Modern China.‘  

I’m delighted to have been invited to participate in this event and am looking forward greatly to being back in Belfast, which has been a real cauldron of productivity for me personally and is also a city and department full of good friends. Beyond the massive dose of inspiration and knowledge that these lectures and associated structured discussions will doubtless provide, I am also hopeful that heading back to Ulster will trigger submission of a few of my own Sino-Japanese manuscripts that have been moving forward, shall we say, at a somewhat staggered rate.