China seeks business, not reparations, as visit by Japanese emperor nears

October 19, 1992|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau

NANJING, China -- The Chinese government is in a delicate bind between honor and economic ambition over the visit of Emperor Akihito of Japan this week.

In this former capital city and elsewhere in China, the first visit of the Japanese emperor, which will begin Friday, has stirred horrific memories and a grass-roots drive for reparations for atrocities committed during the Japanese invasion of China more than half a century ago.

But the long line of Japanese industrialists entertained lately by Chinese leaders aptly testifies to the real incentive for inviting the emperor: The Chinese government doesn't expect a Japanese apology or reparations; it wants to do business.

Under the circumstances, it's not surprising that Nanjing is not on the emperor's itinerary. That's probably wise, given that some of the worst Japanese atrocities were committed here and they have not been forgotten -- let alone forgiven.

"If the Japanese emperor came here, I feel like I would try to kill him with my own hands," says Zhao Fenxi, 70, a retired Nanjing chemical worker. "Everyone in my generation still hates the Japanese for what they did here."

What the Japanese did here 55 years ago is generally referred to as "the rape of Nanjing" -- seven weeks of terror, aerial bombing, mass executions, random killings, rape and pillage that devastated the largely undefended city.

That brutal attack before the full outbreak of World War II is given short shrift in most Western histories of China and is ignored in virtually all Japanese accounts of the war.

According to Chinese documentation, the death toll in Nanjing from just Dec. 13, 1937, through January 1938 came to more than 300,000 Chinese soldiers and civilians.

Japan has never apologized to China for the atrocity, nor for the 21 million Chinese Beijing says were killed or injured during Japan's invasion and occupation of large parts of China during World War II.

An "unfortunate period"

In a rare news conference last week to discuss the visit, which also has provoked controversy in Japan, Emperor Akihito referred to Japan's wartime thrust into China as an "unfortunate period in the two countries' recent past."

During the emperor's six-day visit to Beijing, Xian and Shanghai, the Chinese government will not pressure him to offer more than vague regrets over the war -- consistent

with the limited statements offered elsewhere in Asia by his father, the late Emperor Hirohito, for whose glory Japanese troops fought.

"Of course, the Chinese government will do nothing to raise any difficult issues for him," says Zhou Jihua of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' Institute of Japanese Studies.

In an even more frank admission of the Chinese leadership's hopes for the imperial visit, another Japan researcher here, Jiang Lifeng, says, "The emperor surely will be received enthusiastically by the Chinese government, so this surely will have a good effect on relations with Japan, and many Japanese entrepreneurs will want to come here and participate in our development."

China's leaders fear Japan's potential re-emergence as a military power. In the long term, they foresee inherent conflicts with Japan as the two nations vie for influence in Asia. But for now, they desperately desire to benefit from Japan's rise as an economic superpower.

Japan, which led developed nations in resuming economic aid to China following the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy protesters in Beijing, already is China's largest foreign lender.

China badly needs more Japanese loans, investment, technology and trade to accelerate its development. Japan is looking to China's natural resources and huge market to reinvigorate its own economy.

Call for reparations

But while the Chinese government has its red carpet and upturned palms waiting for the emperor, many citizens harbor deep resentments, old and new, toward Japan.

"I still really don't like the Japanese, and not just because of World War II," says Yu Fang, 64, who works at a Beijing publishing house. "What they did not win in the war, they are now winning economically. Only now they are not using weapons; they are using trade instead."

These resentments have surfaced this year in an increasingly open, supposedly grass-roots drive by informal Chinese groups demanding that the emperor apologize directly to China and that Japan pay reparations to Chinese citizens for their

wartime suffering.

The official purpose of the emperor's trip here is to celebrate the resumption of diplomatic ties between China and Japan 20 years ago, an agreement in which China gave up any claim for compensation from Japan for its wartime losses.

This year, Chinese leaders unilaterally changed that stance, allowing Chinese citizens for the first time to lobby independently for reparations.

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