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Students at Southeast University in Nanjing held a candlelit vigil on Tuesday to commemorate the anniversary of the Nanking massacre. Photo: Xinhua

China marks 80th anniversary of Nanking massacre

China on Wednesday marks the 80th anniversary of the Nanking massacre by Japanese troops, an enduring source of bad blood between the two nations.

Top leaders will preside over memorial services in the eastern city, but Beijing has yet to confirm whether President Xi Jinping will lend weight to the occasion by attending.

China says about 300,000 civilians and soldiers were killed in a frenzy of murder, torture, rape, arson and looting in the six weeks after the invading Japanese military entered Nanjing, then the capital city, on December 13, 1937.

It remains one of the most fraught anniversaries for the two powerful neighbours due to stubborn disputes over the toll and periodic denials by Japanese arch-conservatives that the episode took place.

Many in China say this symbolises Japan’s unwillingness to completely atone for its wartime aggression.

Officially, Japan concedes that “the killing of a large number of non-combatants, looting and other acts occurred” but says it is difficult to determine precise figures.

The issue receded during the cold war, but has re-emerged as China strikes an increasingly muscular stance under Xi, while critics say Japanese revisionists have grown bolder since conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office.

China in 2014 formally made the anniversary a national day of remembrance, effectively raising its profile.

Yu Zhensheng, current number four leader of Chinese Communist Party and chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, told the gathering that compared with the 1930s and 1940s, China has enhanced its economic, scientific and military power, but would always work towards for world peace and defend the international order.

“China will always adhere to the path of peaceful development. However developed we may become, China will never seek hegemony and never go in for expansion, never impose the tragedy that we had experienced onto other nations,” said Yu.

Yu also referred to Japan’s wartime atrocities involving other countries, such as Manila massacre, the Bataan Death March and the Thai-Burma railway during the Second World War, adding that memories of the war should be retained to ensure peace in future..

Yu said China and Japan should “learn from history and face the future, continue to be friends for generations, and jointly contribute to world peace.

“China will …deepen its relationships with neighbouring countries, including with Japan,” said Yu.

Oldest survivor of Nanking massacre dies at 100, just before memorial day

Liang Yunxiang, an international relations expert at Peking University, said Beijing wants to keep such memories alive as leverage against Japan in modern-day disputes such as maritime territorial squabbles.

“There are current conflicts between the two countries so historical issues are re-emerging. All history is contemporary,” said Liang. “Japan thinks these historical issues should have ended, but China keeps hammering them as it becomes more powerful.”

Commemorations will centre on the sombre and poignant memorial hall and museum in Nanjing, but observances are expected elsewhere throughout China as well.

Beijing has said little about the anniversary, but a Chinese group this week reiterated its annual demand for Japan to compensate relatives of victims.

Wartime sex slaves still emerging in China

Fewer than 100 people designated as massacre “survivors” remain alive, however, and both sides have repeatedly expressed a desire to look forward and avoiding rocking their huge trade relationship.

But the spectre of Japanese aggression refuses to completely fade away.

Abe, the grandson of a wartime minister, has been accused of trying to gloss over it.

He expressed “deep remorse” two years ago for Japan’s actions in Asia, but also said future Japanese generations need not continually apologise, drawing criticism in China and South Korea, another wartime victim.

Japanese politicians have also repeatedly angered Asian neighbours by visiting Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, which commemorates Japan’s military dead including convicted war criminals.

China’s Nanjing toll is disputed even by some Western academics who put it as low as the tens of thousands, but no respected historians dispute that a massacre occurred.
A student lights candles at a Nanjing Normal University vigil to commemorate the Nanking massacre. Photo: Agence France-Presse

Xi marked the first national remembrance day with a speech in Nanjing saying the slaughter and its 300,000 deceased victims could not be denied.

Can China, Japan overcome Nanking massacre’s legacy?

Japan invaded China in the 1930s and they fought a full-scale war between 1937 and 1945, until Japan’s defeat in the Second World War.

China suffered immense loss of life, reserving special anger over a sense that Japan, unlike Germany, has never properly atoned for its actions.

Relations plunged in 2005 as China was swept by rare anti-Japan protests denouncing its war conduct.

But analysts say China’s stability-obsessed leaders are deeply fearful of letting such passions re-emerge and potentially spiral out of control.

Additional reporting by Liu Zhen

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Nanking massacre remembered