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NANJING, China — China marked the anniversary of the Nanjing Massacre by Japan with a message of peace and friendship last week, potentially helping to realign relations between the rival Asian powers.
China has consistently reminded its people of the 1937 massacre, but in what is being interpreted as a highly significant diplomatic gesture, Xi did not lay wreaths or speak at the event on Wednesday, as he did on the same occasion three years ago.
Instead, the memorial speech was relegated to a lower-ranking senior party official, Yu Zhengsheng, who called for China and Japan “to grasp the broad direction of peaceful and friendly cooperation … and pass on friendship from generation to generation.”
A postwar international tribunal put the death toll from the massacre at 142,000, while some conservative Japanese politicians and scholars deny that one took place at all. Ties between China, the world’s second-largest economy, and Japan, the third-largest, have also been plagued by a territorial dispute over islets in the East China Sea and suspicion in China about efforts by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to amend Japan’s pacifist constitution.
Wednesday’s conciliatory message, delivered on the occasion of the most brutal episode in Japan’s invasion of China, was not lost on observers.
After years of disputes over history, regional rivalry and even maritime territory, “China is clearly shifting gear and seeking to lower tension and improve ties with Japan,” said Zhang Lifan, a political historian in Beijing.
“As China expands its influence and encounters resistance in the region and beyond, improved relations with Japan can mitigate the situation and help China to focus on more urgent threats like the North Korean nuclear crisis,” he said.
“We have to move on and we still need to deal with Japan, trade with Japan, send students to Japan”
“With President Trump urging Japan to bear more responsibilities, Prime Minister Abe cannot but think of various ways to have a modus vivendi with China,” he added.
China is committed to improving ties with Japan by “taking history as a mirror and looking forward to the future,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told NBC News when asked about the significance of the Nanjing event.
Others argued, however, that geopolitical self-interest is truly driving the changing dynamic between the regional rivals.
“On the one hand, Abe will follow Trump, as on the North Korean issue,” said Shi Yinhong, Dean of the School of International Studies at Beijing’s Renmin University. “But on the other hand, Japan has some doubts about Trump’s policies.”
“The decisive factor, however, is that conflict is too costly for both sides,” added Shi, who supports “new thinking” for better relations between China and Japan.
The diplomatic signaling that emerged from the Nanjing ceremony merely represents “a continuation of a process,” he said, pointing out that the turning point in relations may actually have been Japan’s endorsement of the Belt and Road project, Xi’s signature economic program to link Asia with Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
A breakthrough was then apparently achieved in November when the country’s two leaders emerged from a meeting on the sideline of a regional summit in Hanoi to declare “a fresh start” in the relationship.
This was followed days later by Abe’s declaration that ties had improved to the point that the two leaders could visit each other’s capital next year.
The momentum led Tokyo and Beijing to agree in early December to establish a maritime hotline to prevent and control accidental clashes in the East China Sea. It has taken 10 years to reach a deal on the issue because of ongoing disputes over a group of uninhabited islands that Japan controls but over which China claims sovereignty.
The issue of forging a friendship with Japan continues to divide Chinese public opinion, however — often over the Nanjing massacre itself.
“If a friend is someone you can trust, then China and Japan will never be friends,” said Zhang Boyu, 22, a Peking University student from the Northeastern province of Jilin, a region once occupied by Japan.
Another student, Yu Qiran, 21, who attends the Communications University of China, said: “We can be friends as long as they admit what they did and face it. But if someone will not respect history, then I will never be friends with them.”
Noting the debate over whether Japan’s apology for wartime atrocities is sincere, Yuan Gang, a government professor at Peking University, argued that “history should not be an impediment” to developing relations. “Are you requiring the Japanese to kneel?” he asked, stressing that Japan supported China’s open-door policy and economic reforms.
Bian Weipin, 58, a retired driver and native of Nanjing, shared that sentiment.
“The painful history will always be in our heart,” he said. “But we have to move on, and we still need to deal with Japan, trade with Japan, send students to Japan.”
For Immediate Release:
Thursday, September 21, 2017
Scott McLarty, Media Director, 202-904-7614, email@example.com
Rich Whitney, Co-Chair of the Peace Action Committee, 618-967-0840, firstname.lastname@example.org
“President Trump’s belligerent speech in front of the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, with his appalling assertion that the U.S. would ‘totally destroy’ North Korea, show how urgently we need a strong movement for peace. The Green Party exists to represent the movement in the political field by an alternative to the two war parties,” said Rich Whitney, GPAX co-chair and Illinois Green Party member.
“Mr. Trump’s threats, which blatantly violate the U.N. Charter, are unfortunately consistent with invasions and attacks launched by the previous two administrations against Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, and with U.S. aid for assaults by Saudi Arabia on Yemen and by Israel on Gaza,” said Mr. Whitney.
Greens said the U.S. Senate vote on Monday for a massive increase in the military budget to $700 billion, approved with bipartisan support, and Democrats’ enthusiasm for a new Cold War with Russia are further evidence that a revived peace movement is necessary.
Peace Day was founded in 1981 through a U.N. resolution. GPAX exists to facilitate the planning and achievement of peace and justice actions of the Green Party and to support and promote the party’s anti-war candidates and agenda.
“We recognize that peace is not just the absence of violence, it’s a willingness to resolve conflict in a constructive manner and to develop alternatives to society’s current patterns of violence,” said Rita Jacobs, member of GPAX and the Green Party of Michigan.
The Green Party lists nonviolence among the Ten Key Values in its national platform. The platform calls for a number of measures to achieve peace, including the elimination of weapons of mass destruction, demilitarization in the Middle East, swift action against human rights violations, and adherence to international law and existing treaties.
“We believe that nations should prepare for peace, not violence. The achievement of peace can only be realized through practices that lead to economic justice, universal nuclear disarmament, sane defense spending, international cooperation, and human rights,” said Deanna Dee Taylor, GPAX co-chair and member of the Green Party of Utah.
GPAX furthers its mission and the Green Party platform through educational events and activities at the national and state levels.