Confronting a poisonous past

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 September, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 18 September, 2003, 12:00am

Seventy-two years ago today, in 1931, Japan invaded northeast China, starting a 14-year expansionist war on the mainland and in other parts of Asia.

The Chinese government has been marking this painful anniversary fairly predictably. But this year's commemoration will make history: more than one million Chinese - 1,119,248 to be precise - from China and around the world have signed a 'joint statement' via 12,518 participating websites.

The statement was an unprecedented grassroots reaction to a number of recent incidents involving chemical weapons abandoned by the Japanese army in China at the end of the second world war.

The most serious case was in the northeast city of Qiqihar, where 43 people were poisoned last month. Among the victims was 33-year-old farm worker Li Guizhen. He suffered burns to 95 per cent of his body while trying to recycle scrap metal from five buried containers, all filled with mustard-gas agents. He died two weeks after being exposed.

The signed statement calls for support for these and other victims of Japan's 'forgotten' chemical weapons. It demands that Japan apologise for its chemical war crimes, clean up the discarded chemical weaponry, take concrete measures to ensure public safety and compensate victims.

Sponsored by China's civilian activist groups, the joint statement and the 4,000 pages of signatures (with names and addresses to avoid fraud) will be sent to the Japanese embassy in Beijing today.

During the second world war, the Japanese army conducted large-scale chemical and germ warfare in China. On more than 2,000 occasions, from 1937 to 1945, Japanese chemical weapons caused more than 100,000 Chinese casualties. Japan's chemical warfare facilities were so widespread and extensive that between 700,000 (the Japanese estimate) and two million (the Chinese estimate) chemical weapons were left behind in China at the end of the war in 1945. This makes China the largest site of abandoned chemical weapons on earth.

There have been more than 2,000 casualties of these discarded weapons. But as critics point out, the Japanese government has been reluctant to admit their existence, slow in cleaning up the sites and resistant to providing compensation.

At first, Japan denied the existence of its wartime chemical weapons programmes. In recent years, it has acknowledged their existence, but has done very little to dispose of the weapons. Both Japan and China are parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention that came into effect in 1997. It requires the treaty states to take full responsibility in the next 10-15 years for disposing of chemical weapons left in other countries.

Japan, however, began work on the chemical weapons in China only when the two countries signed the Memorandum on the Destruction of Japanese Discarded Chemical Weapons, in China in 1999.

But so far there have been only about a dozen joint investigations into locating the weapons and very little has been done to dispose of them. Japan has also failed to provide a detailed list of its wartime chemical-weapons facilities in China, despite repeated requests.

Meanwhile, the Japanese courts have repeatedly ruled against individual Chinese victims who have filed lawsuits. Japan claims that it is no longer obliged to compensate them because the Chinese government officially gave up its war reparation claims in 1972, when the two countries established diplomatic relations.

However, the latest incident in Qiqihar is so serious, and evidence so overwhelming, that Japan, after initial denials, acknowledged that the poisonous-gas containers belonged to the Japanese army. It has sent medical and technical personnel to the site and is negotiating with the Chinese government to pay 100 million yen (HK$6.7 million) for the incident.

But instead of apologising and offering the money to the victims as compensation, the Japanese government merely said the incident was 'regrettable' and referred to the fund as 'investigation expenses' and 'condolence money' for the victims.

To many Chinese, such reactions are unjust, inhumane and unacceptable. In my recent trip to northeast China, I found their anger to be genuine. It is not some kind of twisted nationalism, nor is it a result of manipulation by the government, as some pundits have speculated. In fact, the Chinese government has been actively seeking closer relations with Japan.

Chinese leaders must take seriously the people who have signed the online campaign and registered their grievances with Japan. The Japanese government should seize the opportunity to confront the past with courage and speed up the process of clearing the abandoned chemical weapons in China. Only then can it rid itself of the burden it has carried for so long.

Wenran Jiang, a native of Harbin, is an associate professor of political science at the University of Alberta, Canada