Why the Past Matters

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A post last week on the various films coming out on the Nanjing Massacre prompted several heated comments. Most said they didn’t believe the Japanese had fully come to terms with the wartime aggression of their country, while others pointed out that Japanese leaders have apologized repeatedly in the past. I think the emotional replies underscore the point that this remains a very delicate issue between the two countries.

I’m bringing this up because I just got an advance copy of the book China: Fragile Superpower by Susan L. Shirk, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State with responsibility for U.S. relations with China. I’ve read through a few chapters, and it offers a useful counterpoint to the drumbeat of news about China’s rise. While China’s growth this century is all but inevitable, Shirk argues that it is far from certain that it will be smooth or peaceful. One possible source of instability is the Sino-Japanese relationship. Shirk writes:

Of the three foreign policy relationships that China’s leaders consider the most “sensitive” in domestic politics–Japan, Taiwan, and the United States–Japan is the one that is the most difficult for them to handle. Japan is “the most critical zone in all aspects of China’s foreign relations,” requiring a skillful balancing act on the part of Chinese leaders. “Japan is the most emotional issue,” a student explained. “It is the one issue on which public opinion really matters to the government.”

That’s useful to keep in mind when considering why the Chinese Foreign Ministry would weigh in on a Nanjing denial film that, despite support from some Japanese lawmakers, will ultimately be the work of a private individual. But given the explosiveness of the issue within China, it’s understandable the government feels the need to comment. Still, one hopes the Foreign Ministry won’t feel obligated to comment any time someone in Japan has a revisionist take on Nanjing. It seems like that offers too many opportunities for escalating conflict, and criticism out of Beijing could also backfire by giving credence to dubious historical interpretations.