Beijing wants to make the second world war a key part of a trip by President Xi Jinping to Germany next month, much to Berlin's discomfort, diplomatic sources said, as Beijing tries to use German atonement for its wartime past to embarrass Japan.
Beijing has increasingly contrasted Germany and its public contrition for the Nazi regime to Japan, where repeated official apologies for wartime suffering are sometimes undercut by contradictory comments by conservative politicians.
Ties between the two Asian rivals worsened when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine on December 26, which Beijing sees as a symbol of Tokyo's past militarism because it honours wartime leaders along with millions of war dead.
Xi will visit Germany in late March, as well as France, the Netherlands and Belgium, Beijing-based diplomats said. The Chinese foreign ministry declined to comment on Xi's agenda as the trip has yet to be formally announced.
"China wants a strong focus on world war two when Xi visits Germany and Germany is not happy," said one diplomatic source who has been briefed on China's plans for Xi's trip.
The German government declined to comment, but the diplomatic sources said Germany did not want to get dragged into the dispute between China and Japan and dislikes China constantly bringing up Germany's painful past.
A second diplomatic source with knowledge of the trip said China had proposed Xi visit the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. When that was immediately rejected by Germany, Beijing suggested Xi go to Berlin's Neue Wache memorial, which honours war dead, but not recognised war criminals.
“The Holocaust is a no-go area,” the source said, adding it was unclear if the Neue Wache Memorial visit would go ahead.
Germany does not want the negative legacy of the war to dominate or take centre stage during a state visit, the source added, explaining the objection to the Holocaust Memorial visit.
China wanted German officials to go to Japan and tell them how to cope with history, the source added.
It is not clear exactly what Xi wants to say about the war while in Germany, which has strong commercial links with China, but Chinese leaders have mentioned the subject in recent visits to Europe.
In 2012, then premier Wen Jiabao went to the former Auschwitz death camp, located in what was then Nazi-occupied Poland, saying: “Only those who remember history can build a good future.”
Japanese leaders have repeatedly apologised for suffering caused by the country’s wartime actions, including a landmark 1995 apology by then prime minister Tomiichi Murayama. But remarks by conservative politicians periodically cast doubt on Tokyo’s sincerity.
Taking questions in parliament last Thursday, Abe said his government would stick by past apologies.
“As I’ve said before, in the past many nations, especially those in Asia, suffered great damage and pain due to our nation. Our government recognises this, as have the governments that have gone before, and will continue this stance,” Abe said.
Watch: Abe's controversial visit to the Yasukuni shrine last December
Sino-Japanese ties are not just plagued by China’s bitter memories of Japan’s occupation of parts of the country before and during the second world war, but also by a territorial row and regional rivalry. Relations chilled after a feud over disputed islands in the East China Sea flared in 2012.
Some experts say China’s campaign against Japan has helped Beijing shift some of the debate away from its growing military assertiveness in Asia, including double-digit defence spending increases and the creation of an air defence identification zone in the East China Sea that was condemned by Tokyo and Washington.
China pressed home its propaganda offensive against Japan last week during a government-organised visit for foreign reporters to the site of the Nanjing massacre.
Reporters were taken to see the house where a German businessman called John Rabe lived, a man lionised in China for his role in protecting Chinese from Japanese troops who rampaged through the city, then known as Nanking, in late 1937.
China says Japanese troops killed 300,000 people. A post-war Allied tribunal put the death toll at 142,000.
“Any group of people can make a historical mistake, but the Germans have admitted to it and said that they wouldn’t allow such a thing to happen again,” said Zhu Chengshan, curator of the memorial hall for the victims of the massacre.
“This is an amazing historical perspective that the Germans have. The Japanese, on the other hand, are exactly the opposite.”
Part of China’s campaign has been to highlight German contrition.
State television recently showed footage of former West German chancellor Willy Brandt falling to his knees in front of a memorial to victims of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, when the Germans brutally crushed a Jewish revolt.
Asked about China’s comparison of Germany and Japan, a Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman said Japan would continue to tread a peaceful path and that it was China’s recent provocative actions that were raising concerns in the region.
“We have to reflect on the past but cannot live only in the past,” spokesman Masaru Sato said.
“Reconciliation requires not only a former perpetrator’s sincerity and gesture of atonement, but also a former victim’s acceptance,” he said, adding Tokyo wants dialogue with Beijing.
Numerous diplomatic sources say China has been putting pressure on Western embassies in Beijing to get their governments to condemn Abe’s Yasukuni shrine visit.
Abe has repeatedly said he did not visit the shrine to honour war criminals but to pay his respects to those who died for their country and to pledge Japan would never again go to war. His visit prompted a rare statement of “disappointment” from Washington on the day he went.
Last month, following a regular meeting between the Chinese and German defence ministries, Chinese state media said the German side expressed their “understanding for China’s position”.
“For Germany, the lessons of history have been bitter. Germany went through deep reflection and exerted much effort, thus winning the trust of the international community,” Chinese newspapers cited unnamed German officials as saying.
It is all getting a bit much for Germany.
“The Germans are really uncomfortable with this kind of thing,” said a third diplomatic source, referring to the defence ministry meeting. “They don’t like China constantly comparing them with Japan and going on about the war.”
China’s ambassador to Germany, Shi Mingde, in an interview with a German newspaper last month, drew a comparison between Abe’s shrine visit and the Nazis. “Imagine that the German chancellor would visit Hitler’s bunker instead of the Holocaust Memorial to lay flowers. That would be unthinkable,” Shi said.
Japanese spokesman Sato, noting that Yasukuni honours 2.5 million war dead from conflicts including both world wars, said it was wrong to suggest the Yasukuni visit meant Japan was unrepentant. “Comparing the two nations by simply referring to a visit to the shrine is wrong,” he said.