China softens tone on Japan’s war crimes

China on Thursday marked the 70th anniversary of the Nanjing Massacre by opening a memorial hall that blends commemoration of atrocities inflicted by invading Japanese with a message of peace.

The relatively positive tone of the new hall, along with measured reporting on the anniversary by state media, highlighted Beijing’s desire not to let historical disputes disrupt its recent rapprochement with Tokyo.

“Correct treatment of history can help people calmly and rationally deal with the contradictions in ties between the two countries,” the People’s Daily, mouthpiece of the Communist party, said in an opinion article noting the “sensitivity” of the anniversary year.

Officials in Nanjing, the former Chinese capital that suffered rape and killing of civilians and unarmed soldiers by Japanese forces in the winter of 1937-38, say its new enlarged memorial hall embodies an “appeal for peace”.

“In the past it was just about the Great Nanjing Massacre – now the peaceful content is more important,” Zhu Chengshan, the hall curator, told a news briefing this week. The softening of the tone of a hall that has been both focus and fuel for bitterness at past Japanese brutality reflects Beijing’s efforts to create more positive ties.

However, China shows no sign of easing its insistence that the invaders killed more than 300,000 people in Nanjing city in the weeks after its fall, a figure many historians see as highly inflated.

The number is carved into signs and walls at the new hall and Mr Zhu said Japanese who questioned a total confirmed by postwar tribunals were acting out of “ulterior motives”.

“Three hundred thousand is a cast-iron fact and distortion of it by anyone will not be tolerated,” he said.

Some rightwing historians and commentators in Japan seek to deny that any significant massacre of civilians or unlawful execution of prisoners took place in Nanjing. Estimates of the number killed by mainstream Japanese historians range from around 13,000 to more than 100,000, with totals depending in part on whether deaths before the city’s fall and in nearby regions are included.

China has sought to prevent debate on the scale of the killings being included in government-sponsored discussions between historians launched last year as part of the diplomatic warming that began after Shinzo Abe became Japanese prime minister.

Ties have continued to improve under Mr Abe’s successor, Yasuo Fukuda. However, Beijing and Tokyo have yet to make progress on a maritime border dispute, and a recent gathering of economics ministers was marred by accusations that China excised part of Japan’s position from its version of a post-meeting communiqué.

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