Chinese National People’s Congress (NPC) Standing Committee has approved the draft decision to make December 13 a National Memorial Day to “commemorate those killed during the Nanjing Massacre in the 1930s” and designate September 3 as “Victory Day of the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression.”
These two planned designations immediately remind people of China’s increasing resentment toward Japan in the enduring East China Sea standoff. This will be the first legislative act at the national level to commemorate China’s losses during the war and its role as victor in the post-war settlement. The Memorial Day designation, in particular, has been proposed to CPPCC (Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference) and NPC since 2005 by officials and NPC members from Nanjing, where local memorial activity has been a routine since 1994.
China Youth Daily commented that the designations “come at the right moment,” when “the Japanese right-wing continues to rise.” A China Central Television (CCTV) news program also explained that the two designations are intended to stand with Japanese people in memory of the miserable war history and its deep lessons. Regarding China’s decision, Japan’s chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Japan has no further comment on the issue, but questioned the fact that China has waited for 69 years to take such an action.
So, what has happened during the past 69 years between China and Japan? Why has a historical reconciliation been so difficult to achieve between these two neighbors? A brief and quick glance of the history may help us to understand the nature and origin of current confrontational situation.
The most substantial consequence from the post-war settlement could be that Japan’s surrender was actually conditional or limited, compared to what had happened to Germany in Europe after the Allied victory. Obviously, the subsequent post-war geopolitical and ideological confrontation in the Far East has made Japan a key ally in the U.S.-led Western world, in which Japan continued to revive, rise, and transform into a Western-style democracy.
Nevertheless, after two decades, mutual diplomatic recognition in early 1970s significantly enhanced economic and cultural interactions between a red China and a democratic Japan. China started its economic reform after 10 years of political turbulence, and Japan needed overseas markets for its booming economy. Disputes and differences, whether historical, ideological, or territorial, were shelved at the national level.
However, shelving the disputes and differences does not mean a complete settlement. From the Chinese perspective, the war was over, but the perception of and attitude toward the war and the aggression are still important issues that inevitably have great impacts on Sino-Japanese relations, no matter how close economic ties are between these two countries. In this sense, the current aversion between these two neighbors has a very deep historical root, which great powers outside the region (for example the U.S.) may not have truly understood, or may have intentionally avoided discussing.
The huge gap between China and Japan regarding the acknowledgement and attitude toward the war history is obvious. For China, the dispute is not over as long as there is an ‘attitude problem.’ For Japan, the concern is more about having an economically and militarily stronger China as its regional rival. In addition, there’s Japan’s unique role in U.S. Asia policy to consider.
Hence, the designations of Victory Day and Memorial Day by China’s NPC come with a long and deep historical root that surely cannot be underestimated. Given the current situation, these new national days may also prove China’s growing confidence in the ongoing disputes with Japan, making the decision part of China’s strategy of “reactive assertiveness.”