China allowing WWII suits against Japanese firms

China allowing WWII suits against Japanese firms

BEIJING - China is allowing a growing number of its citizens to sue Japan and its firms for their actions during World War II, opening a new front of contention that is set to further sour relations between the two bickering neighbours.

Until last month, Beijing's long-standing approach was to dismiss suits by Chinese nationals seeking apology and compensation for Japan's wartime actions such as forced labour.

This is consistent with its policy not to seek official compensation, as stipulated in the 1972 Japan- China joint communique when the two countries normalised relations. Over the years, Chinese leaders have also been concerned that such emotional and protracted legal battles would hurt bilateral and economic ties.

But in a first, a Beijing court last month decided to hear a class action lawsuit filed by 37 Chinese individuals demanding compensation from two Japanese firms, Mitsubishi Materials and Nippon Coke and Engineering, for their alleged forced labour practices during WWII.

This "breakthrough" prompted two Chinese groups to launch their own suits last week - one by survivors of the WWII bombing of then-capital Chongqing, and another involving 700 people in Shandong province demanding an apology and compensation from two China-based Japanese firms which allegedly forced them to work in Japan during the war.

Earlier this week, a Shanghai court ordered the unprecedented seizure of a Japanese ship over pre-war debts, a move that Tokyo warned "threatened ties with China and could undermine the basis of their diplomatic relationship".

Experts see these recent cases as signs of a "minor shift" in China's policy towards the issue of war reparation, while adding that Beijing was unlikely to completely change its mind about it.

"In politically sensitive cases like these, Chinese courts likely consult government agencies or higher-level leaders, so accepting lawsuits reflects a growing readiness by China to allow and passively support civil legal actions against Japan and its firms," said analyst Li Mingjiang of Nanyang Technological University.

"Overall, they can be seen as more politically driven rather than legally driven."

Sino-Japanese ties have been strained severely over a territorial dispute in the East China Sea and what China sees as Japan's failure to atone for its wartime past.

But apart from political motives, analysts say other factors might be at play in the rising number of such lawsuits.

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