How Does Historical Memory Impact China’s Relationship With Japan?

Spring festivities at Japan’s Yasukuni Shrine began on April 21, 2022, with many high-ranking Japanese politicians attending, including former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Abe told reporters that he visited the shrine to show his respect for the spirits of those who fought and gave their precious lives for the motherland. The current Prime Minister, Fumio Kishida, sent a ritual offering to this controversial place that has been at the heart of Chinese-Japanese diplomatic friction. In response, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Wang Wenbin, said at a routine press conference the same day that the Yasukuni Shrine symbolizes Japanese militarism. Wang severely condemned Japan and urged it to ‘reflect on its history of aggression’, ‘make a clean break with militarism’, and ‘win the trust of its Asian neighbors and the international community with concrete actions.’

In addition to the controversy surrounding Yasukuni Shrine, Japan’s history textbooks have long been a source of discontent in China. China alleges that these textbooks do not adequately cover or even deny Japan’s colonial and wartime history, most notably the 1937 Nanjing Massacre. Moreover, Japanese textbooks claim that the disputed Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu Islands) are Japanese territory, fuelling resentment amongst the Chinese.

How important is history to the Chinese? In China, both leaders and ordinary people enjoy debating history. To understand China’s contemporary foreign relations, particularly with its East Asian neighbors, we must understand the importance of historical memory. One approach to anticipating China’s future behaviour is to delve into the country’s history and collective memory. Chinese leaders often draw from classical texts, such as those written by the ancient military strategist Sun Tzu, when crafting strategies. Likewise, the Chinese, owing to their long history and rich culture, are adept at applying historical experience and wisdom to foreign relations. For instance, in 1972, Mao Zedong, chairman of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), pushed for Sino–American rapprochement in the face of a growing Soviet threat in the late 1960s. Moreover, Mao’s idea about the China–US–USSR triangular diplomacy was partly influenced by the 14th-century historical novel ‘Romance of the Three Kingdoms‘, which he frequently invoked in his speeches. Apart from the political elites who shape foreign policy, the collective memory of Chinese citizens, especially of the ‘Century of Humiliation’ (Bainian Guochi), has had a considerable impact on China’s foreign relations. China occupied the dominant position in East Asia until 1895, when it lost the First Sino-Japanese War. However, it has experienced phenomenal economic growth and increased military strength over the last few decades. The collective memories of the Sino–Japanese wars, particularly the 1931–1945 war and Japanese aggression, are deeply entrenched. Chinese leaders cannot afford to ignore this history and collective memory when formulating foreign policy.

While economic ties between China and Japan have improved drastically since the 1980s, public perceptions of each other have deteriorated. Why? Scholars argue that the Chinese top-down ‘patriotic education’ since the 1990s has been the primary cause of anti-Japanese sentiments in China and claim that the CCP uses the politics of historical memory to mobilize the masses and foster social cohesion. It is more profitable for the CCP to exploit popular online nationalist sentiments than to suppress them. During the Second Sino–Japanese War, the CCP used anti-Japanese nationalism to stir up nationalist sentiments among the masses of peasants. Thus, it was the party’s nationalist aspirations, not communism, which cemented its historical position. The desperate demands for political liberalization that swept through China in the 1980s forced the ruling CCP to realize the urgency of adapting its official discourse to fill the post-Maoist ideological vacuum. Furthermore, the collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the disintegration of the Soviet Union prompted the CCP to focus its ideological attention on patriotism and Chinese nationalism pragmatically. To bolster the legitimacy of the party and ‘restore’ people’s loyalty, the Jiang Zemin administration launched the Patriotic Education Campaign (PEC) in August 1994, emphasizing foreign invaders’ brutality in the past and the CCP’s glorious history of leading the Chinese people to independence through history education. It was accompanied by the publication of numerous new patriotic books and films with an anti-invasion theme. Hence, the CCP’s patriotic campaign served as a pragmatic manifestation of nationalism.

China’s emerging online community facilitated the existence, growth, and spread of Chinese nationalist and anti-Japanese sentiments, culminating in massive anti-Japanese demonstrations in 2005, 2010, and 2012. While nationalist discourse is an essential source of legitimacy for the CCP, the party seeks a balanced and pragmatic foreign policy that is not swayed by popular online nationalist discourse at home. The CCP dealt with several anti-Japanese demonstrations with extreme caution, as it did not want to give its people the impression that its foreign policy was weak, nor did it want to further deteriorate the already fragile Sino-Japanese relations. When popular nationalist discourses on the Internet align with the official political agenda, the government allows them to circulate permissively to generate favorable public opinion in its bargaining with foreign actors. On the other hand, the government suppresses these discourses when they become too radical and have the potential to inspire real-life demonstrations or generate public opinion that is not conducive to pragmatic or ‘secret’ negotiations with foreign actors. The CCP tries to strike a delicate balance by fostering a ‘healthy’ nationalism among the younger generation while avoiding the radical expression of nationalism online. To some extent, Xi Jinping’s assertiveness has been motivated by the grassroots nationalist discourse and its call for a stricter foreign policy. When the CCP responded to this call, the divergence between popular online nationalism and the official narrative was significantly reduced. In addition, the ‘wolf warrior diplomacy’ adopted by Chinese diplomats on social media platforms such as Twitter, won support from netizens, symbolizing the further consolidation of the official discursive construct.

Today, the major disputes between the two countries relate to historical memory. I believe that when Japan is in a realpolitik conflict with China, the issue of history will become a diplomatic tool for the Chinese government. Furthermore, as assertive Chinese nationalism, particularly cyber-nationalism, grows, Beijing will respond to public anger with a more aggressive foreign policy. These nationalist sentiments can be traced largely to the ‘patriotic education’ campaigns that began in the 1990s. The two governments can try to avoid flare-ups in the region by restraining the expression of nationalistic sentiments, while still letting them vent.

[Image credit: Palácio do Planalto, via Wikimedia Commons]

*Enchen Lan is currently pursuing an MSc in Asian politics from School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He holds a BA in International Studies and an MA in Politics and Contemporary History from the University of Nottingham. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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