Chinese President Xi Jinping and all six other members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the country’s most powerful body, made a rare public appearance Wednesday to commemorate 69 years since Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II.
The ceremony was the first since Beijing earlier this year declared September 3 as a national day to mark Japan’s defeat — it signed the formal surrender on board the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945, with China celebrating the following day.
Relations between the two countries are currently mired in bitter disputes over territory and history.
Hundreds of veterans, officials, military personnel, schoolchildren, and young people in traditional ethnic minority dress gathered at a museum near the Marco Polo Bridge on the edge of Beijing, where a skirmish between Chinese and Japanese troops in 1937 triggered full-scale war.
Opening the ceremony, Premier Li Keqiang called on the crowd to “pay a silent tribute to martyrs who bravely sacrificed their lives in the War of Chinese People’s Resistance Against Japanese Aggression,” as the conflict is known in China.
Xi and his six colleagues on the ruling party’s top committee presented seven flower baskets in front of sculptures of “martyrs” inside the museum, with China Central Television broadcasting live.
China’s Communist Party has long used nationalism as part of its claim to a right to rule.
It stresses that under its leadership, which began in 1949, China finally overcame more than a century of humiliation by outside powers dating back to the Opium Wars of the 19th century.
The most frequent references to national humiliations are to Japan, which invaded China in the 1930s and surrendered in 1945.
Beijing researchers estimate that 20.6 million people died as a result.
The two countries’ relations are heavily coloured by their history, and Beijing and Tokyo are embroiled in a series of rows, including a long-running diplomatic spat over disputed islands in the East China Sea.
Tensions rose further this year after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in January visited the Yasukuni shrine, which honours Japan’s war dead, including convicted war criminals.
Chinese officials often call on Japan to “reflect” on its past, while Tokyo regularly invokes the need to develop a “forward-looking” relationship with Beijing.
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