Drowning out the peacemakers in Nanjing
by Brady Ng
In some cities, scars run deep.
Take a stroll around the memorial to the Rape of Nanjing, and you will find pits where Japanese troops indiscriminately gunned down the city’s Chinese civilians 75 years ago. Impossible to identify and rebury, their bones have been left for viewing. Visitors walk over them, snapping photos with their mobile phones. Every year on December 13, there is a peace conference at the memorial to commemorate the 300,000 civilians who died in this city during the Japanese invasion before World War II. Yet the conference proposes a curious form of peace, one in which militarism lies just below the surface.
Even as Chinese Communist Party officials speak about making peace with Japan and building a future together, the conference’s events draw more attention to the atrocities that the Japanese army committed on Chinese soil than to any future peace-building. Talk shows on state-run television and radio stations routinely feature guests who use the Rape of Nanjing to whip up renewed anger toward Japan. The contrast between the rhetoric about peace and war-mongering is jarring, but a closer look reveals this tension to be a tactic — using simmering militarism as a diversion from domestic problems.
Last August and September, anti-Japan protests took place in several Chinese cities. In Beijing, storefronts were vandalized and Japanese cars were destroyed. In Shenzhen, tear gas had to be used to disperse the crowd. Control over the South and East China seas was a major focal point of the violence, and these waters continue to spark tension in China’s relationships with the United States, Taiwan and Japan. China and Japan also clash over an island chain known as Diaoyu to the Chinese and Senkaku to the Japanese, which both countries claim to be part of their respective sovereign territories. With each passing day, relations between the two nations seem increasingly dire. One can’t help but think that war between the two Asian nations could break out soon, and that if it did Chinese citizenry have been well-trained to support military action.
Meanwhile, Chinese peace activists continue trying to create a counter-narrative — one focused on reconciliation.
One such activist based in Nanjing, who wished to remain anonymous, put it bluntly: “Japanese officials might deny the Rape of Nanjing, but the Chinese Communist Party is also at fault. The Party does not tell the whole truth about the time when the Japanese army invaded China because both sides committed war crimes. If they told the truth, they would be less credible when they use this event in history to denounce the actions of Japan regarding the Diaoyu Islands.”
Two of the activist’s grandparents lived in Nanjing when the Japanese stormed the city, and they suffered under Japanese occupation. That violent episode is part of his family history, but he still refuses to support any violent action against Japan. In fact, he encourages Chinese citizens to engage Japanese nationals and begin a collective grassroots dialogue, one that establishes friendships between the two nations’ peoples.
The struggle over the memory of Nanjing is, in some ways, counterintuitive. Those who should be most bitter are the ones fighting for peace, while those who are responsible for brokering security are agitating for war.
The survivors of the Nanjing massacre form a key part of the effort to make peace with Japan. They make media appearances and issue public statements in support of Japanese scholars who buck the trend in their own country by admitting that the Rape of Nanjing did indeed occur. While the two sides may not see eye to eye on the details — they disagree over the number of deaths, as well as the number of girls and women forced into prostitution — they share the goal of building a common future for their descendants.
To Read the Rest