04/11/2007, 00.00
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Wen Jiabao in Japan, a decisive step

by Pino Cazzaniga
Starting today through to April 13th the Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao is in Japan on a state visit which observers describe as a milestone in the journey towards reconciliation between East Asia’s two super powers.

Tokyo (AsiaNews) - Wen Jiabao’s trip to Tokyo is the first by a Chinese premier in over 7 years.  The last took place in October 2000 with Zhu Rongji. Annual visits by the former Japanese premier Junichiro Koizumi to the Yasukuni sanctuary cut relations short.


There are three events which give particular meaning to Wen’s trip to Japan: talks with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe; his speech to the Diet, the first ever made by a Chinese leader; his audience with the Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko at the imperial palace.  On the last say, Wen will make his way to Kyoto, where he will visit a monument commemorating Chinese premier Zhou Enlai (1898-1976) and hold a conference at Ritsumeikan University.


The visit, reduces from a week to three days, has forced the cancellation of a television appearance by Wen, where he was to have held a direct question and answers session with Japanese citizens.  The shortening of the visit’s programme – due to “urgent political appointments” -  according to Chinese political sources, seems to be instead the result of a gaff by Abe, who two weeks ago cast aspersions on the imperial authorities responsibility regarding the inhuman abuse of “comfort women” during the second world war.  


Apart from this hiccup, this visit has been long desired by both leaders and the governments they represent.  April 4th during a press conference in Beijing Wen described it as “an ice breaking journey”, expressing hope that it would prove a success and that a joint document would be published, which underscore “mutual respect”.  The visit along with the declaration is aimed to open a “new phase” in relations between China and Japan.  On the very same day in Tokyo the Japanese premier echoed his counterpart’s sentiments: “I am looking forward to speaking with premier Wen Jiabao: his visit to Japan will allow us to build a relationship that is mutually strategic and advantageous”.


The event is of great importance on a geopolitical level, both in an East Asian and world context.  Wen’s trip is the next stop on a diplomatic journey launched by Abe’s whirlwind visit to Beijing, following his election as prime minister, a trip that according to Wen, will be repeated again this year perhaps before the beginning of the Chinese Communist Party Congress.  


The smooth running of the visit itself is a difficult undertaking for both leaders and requires moral energy and diplomatic ability, given that both populations, Chinese and Japanese, still bear rancour; firstly due to the suffering and humiliation inflicted by the Japanese army in the first half of the last century; secondly due to the constant wave of inflammatory propaganda directed towards Japan by China over the last 60 years.  In April 2005 Chinese masses abandoned themselves to violent demonstrations against Japan.  This time Chinese government propaganda has taken care to prepare the population for the China – Japan encounter.  


In a Beijing suburb, home to the once legendary Marco Polo Bridge and theatre of violence between the Imperial army and Chinese people, an anti-Japanese Museum has been built visited annually by over 300,000, 10,000 of whom are Japanese.  In the great hall there is an exhortation of some note of the current President Hu Jintao, which reads: "Remember history well and do not forget the Past”.  Just a few months ago in the same Museum, Li Jie, a 25 year old student, interviewed by a foreign journalist said : “I feel a great pain when I come here”, but added “ President Wen shows great generosity by going to Japan, if you consider our history and how much we suffered”.  The vice director of the museum, Li Zongyuan, agrees: “The Chinese people hope that premier Wen’s journey to Japan can help to break the ice and gradually eliminate disagreements and contradictions between our nations”.    


This change in tone is not only the result of strong indoctrination.  Thanks to information technology and a growing contact with Japanese tourists and technicians, thousands of Chinese from the Chinese East coast know well that the Japanese people cannot be all grouped together under the banner of hyper nationalism.  


However it cannot be denied that the Beijing government is doing its best to avoid disturbing the atmosphere.  Only one month ago, the Japanese Ministry for Education ordered publishers of high school history books, to review some inserts regarding the wrongdoings of the Imperial army.  To the great surprise of many, the Chinese media which is usually vociferous in its condemnation of such cases remained silent.  South Korea did not hold back in its recrimination.  “The Chinese authorities silence on the issue is surprising” wrote the editor of The Korean Herald, indicating as a possible motive, Wen Jiabao’s programmed visit.


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