Anti-Japan tack may backfire on China

Anti-Japan tack may backfire on China

Lining the walls of a cavernous, dimly lit museum hall were black-and-white photos, many showing graphic scenes of Japanese wartime aggression in China while some were portraits of war criminals.

The museum guide hurried through her introduction of each of the war criminals before stopping pointedly in front of a portrait of a man in a suit, with greying hair at his temples.

Then she said of the man in the photo, "this is the grandfather of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe", pausing to allow the information to sink in.

Nobusuke Kishi, the father of Mr Abe's mother, was described as a "first-degree war criminal" at the 9.18 Historical Museum in the north-eastern city of Shenyang.

A wartime Minister of Industry, he was arrested as a suspected Class A war criminal by Allied forces but was cleared of the charges and went on to serve as Prime Minister in 1957.

My visit to the museum, together with some 40 other foreign journalists, was one of five stops in north-eastern China on a recent two-day trip organised by the Chinese Foreign Ministry, as part of a global propaganda war against Japan.

The museum commemorates the day, Sept 18, 1931, when the Japanese were said to have blown up a railway under its control, then blamed it on Chinese rebels, as a pretext for war. The date is used by the Chinese to mark the start of the Japanese invasion of China.

By dwelling on the portrait of Mr Abe's grandfather at the museum, the Chinese were sending a simple message: that Japan's war-era militarism is linked to its current military buildup under Mr Abe.

This message, which I felt would only provoke the Japanese further and alienate them, was painstakingly repeated throughout the trip by museum curators, historians and even an 89-year-old Chinese man who had aided a Western prisoner of war (POW) incarcerated in one of the Japanese POW camps in north-eastern China. Our meetings with all these interviewees were arranged by the Foreign Ministry.

Recent moves by Mr Abe - such as a Dec 26 visit to the controversial Yasukuni war shrine and declarations that he will revise his country's pacifist Constitution - have fanned simmering tensions between the two Asian giants amid an ugly territorial spat in the East China Sea.

Not content with near-daily criticisms of Japan in Chinese state media, Beijing has mounted a sustained international campaign where its senior diplomats around the world have been marshalled to speak out against what it perceives as Tokyo's return to militarism and Mr Abe's "revisionist" attempts at denying wartime history.

Earlier this month, China's ambassador to Britain Liu Xiaoming wrote an article in The Telegraph newspaper comparing Japan's militarism to Voldemort, the infamous villain in the popular Harry Potter series of children's books.

China's fury is understandable and the chip on its shoulder from the brutal Japanese occupation that resulted in millions of lives lost can be justified.

But while I was moved by many of the memorial sites, recalling similar massacres that had taken place in Singapore, I felt that the propaganda - which a fellow journalist on the trip remarked as "fit for the 1960s", referring to Cold War propaganda pitting communism against capitalist ideals - was a little excessive and obvious.

For instance, the guide at the Fushun War Criminals Management Centre extolled the "loving care" Chairman Mao Zedong showed Japanese war criminals some six decades ago that led to their "miraculous transformation".

The centre held nearly 1,000 war criminals for "rehabilitation and re-education" from 1950 to 1964.

Our visit there was meant to show us the contrast between China's supposedly humane treatment of Japanese POWs and the atrocities committed by Japan during its occupation of north-eastern China.

Professor Wang Jianxue, a historian affiliated with the 9.18 Historical Museum also said at the end of the tour: "I think we can see the influence of his grandfather in the Prime Minister's own outlook."

Pressing China's point further, Mr Xiao Jingquan, former curator of the Pingdingshan Massacre Memorial Hall that commemorates 3,000 Chinese villagers slain by Japanese soldiers in 1932, said: "Mr Abe represents the right-wing and wants to use the Diaoyu island dispute to attain his political goal of amending the Constitution."

But while most of the journalists on the trip were sympathetic to the sufferings of the Chinese during the Japanese occupation, those I spoke to were keenly aware that our tour was part of an all-out propaganda war.

Many, including myself, had braced ourselves for an onslaught of anti-Japanese rhetoric, so China's attempt to win us over might have backfired instead. We were sceptical of the information provided and wary of being manipulated.

As a result, many of the subsequent media reports of the trip spoke of "propaganda" and detailed the efforts the Chinese took to drive home their point.

The Japanese media also bristled at the Japan-bashing, noting Beijing's thinly veiled attempt to sway international opinion. A Kyodo news agency report, for instance, said "it is clear the aim of the tour is to put Japan into a corner by highlighting historical issues".

But the trip also illuminated for me the deep wound the Chinese continue to nurse, which cuts into every aspect of Chinese society, from how school textbooks are written to Sino-Japan trade, which has taken a beating in recent months, a victim of mounting tensions.

Unlike history lessons in Singapore that gave me a sense of being an observer learning about things past, the museums made their visitors feel like participants engaged in a very present and unresolved conflict.

The Japanese occupation of Singapore was presented as a closed chapter but it is a raw wound here, festering and poisoning bilateral ties between Beijing and Tokyo.

I believe, with history on its side, Beijing should just let the facts speak for themselves. Maybe a less emotive take on history can win it more supporters, especially from within Japan.

A Japanese reporter I spoke to said while he fully acknowledged Japan's wartime aggression, the constant attack on his country throughout the trip was wearing him down.

Similarly, the Japanese people, whom China wants to win over, could turn defensive or harden their position in the face of these constant barbs. And having more domestic support would give Mr Abe more reason to hold his ground.

Not all propaganda wars are won with aggressive, in-your-face, hard-sell tactics. In fact, the most powerful ones are executed insidiously and perhaps Beijing should bear that in mind.

Foreign Ministry Tour Itenerary

When fighting broke out in July 1937 between Japanese and Chinese troops at the Marco Polo Bridge near Beijing, it sparked a full-scale war between China and Japan. This conflict came six years after Japan first invaded and gained control over Manchuria, or what is now Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning.

Japan surrendered in August 1945 after the United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending the eight-year occupation of China. Historian Rana Mitter estimates that China lost about 14 million lives in the war although a wide range of between 10 million and 20 million is often quoted, including the estimated 250,000 to 300,000 civilians killed in the Nanking massacre.

China has accused Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a conservative nationalist, of attempting to rewrite history and downplay war atrocities. Mr Abe also supported revising school curricula which China says whitewashes Tokyo's militaristic past.

Thus, the five sites in Liaoning Province that the Foreign Ministry picked to show foreign journalists during a recent two-day trip to the region were meant to show Japanese brutality during the war and suggest a return to such militarism. They are:

•9.18 Historical Museum: Displays touched on the Unit 731 biological warfare research unit that conducted tests on live human subjects.

•Shenyang Allied Prisoners of War Camp: More than 200 POWs were said to have died here due to severe cold and diseases including malaria and dysentery.

•Pingdingshan Massacre Memorial Hall: Skeletal remains of more than 800 are held on the site where 3,000 villagers were massacred.

•Liaoning Provincial Archives: Journalists shown original secret service reports documenting the Nanking massacre.

•Fushun War Criminals Management Centre: Shows how Japanese prisoners of war were "lovingly rehabilitated and re-educated".

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