The Politics of History in China-Japan Relations
2012 anti-Japan demonstration in Beijing
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Voice of America

The Politics of History in China-Japan Relations


This article is part of The Diplomat’s series exploring historical issues in Northeast Asia in the run-up to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s statement on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. See the rest of the series here.

Every nation has at least two histories, one about the origin and evolution of its civilization (the “us”), the other about its interactions with the outside world (the “other”). The two histories are often closely intertwined, as the (mis)presentation of the us can be heavily shaped by (mis)presentation of the other. This is particularly true in the case of China, which suffered “a century of humiliation” at the hands of foreign powers. Of all these foreign powers, Japan has had undoubtedly the most important impact on the post-1949 Chinese presentation of itself, primarily because of the Japanese invasion and occupation of China during World War II.

A cornerstone of the Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy rests on the claim that it played the leading role in the eight-year war of resistance against Japan from 1937 to 1945. It founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949, after defeating the Japanese aggressors (with help from Americans and the Nationalists, of course) and then routing the Nationalists themselves. It is certainly true that “without the Chinese Communist Party, there will be no new China.”

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The war against Japan thus helped the Communist Party to define itself as the standard-bearer of Chinese nationalism and the savior of China. But this does not necessarily mean that the Communist Party would frequently invoke the history of that war—especially Japanese atrocities against the Chinese people—so as to condemn the Japanese to perennial repentance and to justify its rule over China. On the contrary, in the first two decades of the new China, Japan was largely invisible in both Chinese domestic politics and its foreign policy. The bilateral relationship was arguably at its best in the two decades after its normalization in 1972. When a 3,000-plus-member Japanese youth delegation visited China in 1984, at the invitation of the then-general secretary of the Communist Party Hu Yaobang, it seemed as if Chinese leaders were ready to let bygones be bygones.

But beginning in the mid-1990s, history related to Japanese textbooks, (un)official visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, and comfort women emerged as the most contentious and emotional issues between the two countries. As a result, Beijing has repeatedly demanded a written apology from Tokyo for its wrongdoings during the war (especially after the former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung got one during his 1998 visit to Japan), and Japan-bashing has become the most potent face of Chinese nationalism. Meanwhile, disputes over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands—an issue that was on the back-burner of bilateral relations for more than half a century—not only further inflame Chinese public opinion, but also add to negative Japanese views of China.

Now that the 70th anniversary of the Japanese surrender is approaching, many Chinese are wondering how Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will address the “inconvenient” history of World War II. But history is never neutral; it is the selective (mis)presentation of things past by those who monopolize the power of discourse. When ordinary Chinese are bombarded daily with TV series and movies that remind them of Chinese sufferings and Japanese atrocities in World War II, they shouldn’t be surprised that their Japanese counterparts are given textbooks that “whitewash” Japanese behavior during that period. History is merely a pawn on the chessboard of domestic and international politics.

So what is the future like for the two countries “separated by a strip of water”? To look to the future is not to forget the past. It is imperative for Tokyo to reexamine and face up to its responsibility for wartime atrocities. To apologize—verbally or in written form—is relatively easy, but to internalize and institutionalize repentance is much more difficult. That’s why apologies by Japanese leaders have failed to win forgiveness from those who suffered the most under Japanese occupation.

On the other hand, to remember the past is not to live forever in the shadow of the past. Thus Beijing should also examine its share of responsibility for the current state of the bilateral relationship. Whereas under Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, neither history nor the territorial dispute was a salient issue, today they are the most controversial issues between the two countries. To be sure, leaders are different; so are the times in which they live. And today’s China and Japan are different from what they used to be in many crucial aspects. But if the current leadership in Beijing believes that constantly refreshing the Chinese people’s memories of the past is one of the most convenient ways to shore up its domestic legitimacy, then the bilateral relationship is destined to become even worse, no matter how sincerely Japanese leaders apologize for that past.

In international politics, you cannot choose your neighbors, nor can you choose how you are treated by your neighbors. But you can certainly choose how to treat your neighbors. On this important occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Japanese surrender, it is high time for China and Japan to rethink how they have treated each other. History is not to be forgotten, but neither should it be politicized for short-term gains. Otherwise controversies over history may lead to a repeat of history.

In the end, the treatment of the other can be the mirror image of how one treats the us. Every nation has dark moments in the treatment of its own people, such as slavery for Americans and the Gulag for Russians. It takes unusual moral courage and political will for leaders to squarely confront those moments and to truthfully tell their people what happened, how it happened, and what should be done to avoid such mistakes in the future. Those leaders who do so command the moral high ground in both domestic and international politics.

XIE Tao is professor of political science at the School of English and International Studies, Beijing Foreign Studies University.

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