By Marie-Alice McLean-Dreyfus, an intern with the Lowy Institute's East Asia Program.

According to Chinese media outlets, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's speech on 14 August commemorating the 70th anniversary of Japan's surrender at the end of World War II did not go far enough in acknowledging Japan's aggressions, and lacked sincerity.

A survey of Chinese state-owned and state-aligned media articles suggests the speech did little to improve Sino-Japanese relations.

The critical response raises questions. In the eyes of China, will Japan ever be able to atone for its wartime actions? Does China really want to forgive Japan? Given the political necessity in China to have an external adversary to focus people's attention away from domestic troubles, is it almost inevitable that anti-Japanese sentiment will continue to permeate Chinese society?

Chinese media had been fixated on the speech over the last several weeks. The Global Times and Xinhua were unanimous that, at the very least, Abe would have to use the words 'apology', 'aggression', 'remorse' and 'colonial rule'. Former Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama first used these words in 1995 when he expressed a 'heartfelt apology' and 'deep remorse' for Japan's actions during World War II. Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi used the same key words again at the 60th anniversary of Japan's defeat in 2005. 

Abe's speech also used these key words. However, rather than referring directly to what Japan did, Abe used the passive voice, describing colonial rule and aggression in indirect and general terms as things to be avoided. Abe did reaffirm the Murayama Statement. However he did not offer a new apology of his own and even suggested that future generations not be held accountable for past wrongs. 

So how was Abe's speech received in China? The Chinese press reaction was predictably critical.

The semi-authoritative 'Voice of the Central' editorial (a by-line indicating it represents Party views) in Saturday's People's Daily stated that Abe's speech did not match the Murayama Statement in sincerity or content. According to the editorial, Abe did not indicate a clear enough break with Japan's 'disgraceful history'. The editorial was even more scathing of Abe's 'irresponsible' pronouncement that future generations should not apologise. If Japan did not properly confront its wartime past, it would not be able to win the confidence of the international community and contribute to world peace, the editorial said. 

By Sunday the same editorial page had taken an even harder line against Japan, accusing Abe of diluting and dispersing the true meaning of the key words. That Abe had allowed three of his ministers to visit Yakasuni Shrine, according to the editorial, undermined Japan's commitment to its post-war peace. The editorial concluded somewhat ominously that unless Japan truly acknowledged its history and stopped its 'self-indulgent'' behaviour, the risk of Asia taking a path to war would increase. 

Articles questioning Abe's sincerity populated the Chinese dailies. A Xinhua editorial accused him of playing literary tricks and obfuscating. Global Times on Saturday agreed. It claimed Abe had said all the 'magic' words, but they lacked candour. It did accept that his speech wasn't the 'fuse' that would lead to a further deterioration in Sino-Japanese relations, but neither was it going to lead to the real amelioration of tensions between the two countries. 

In an official response, Chinese Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui told Japan's ambassador in Beijing that Japan had to make a 'sincere apology' to wartime victims while making a clear cut with its military past. This view was echoed by Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying when she called on Japan to 'face squarely its history of aggression', 'deeply reflect' on its past wrongs and take credible actions to win the trust of its neighbours.

Like the media coverage, both of these official statements describe China as a responsible international stakeholder which respects history and is following the path of peaceful development. Japan on the other hand is portrayed as having not made a clear break with its militaristic past, not engaged in 'deep-reflection' (反省 fanxing), and not stuck to the path of peaceful development. 

Chinese netizens on the whole were also highly critical of Abe's speech. Some however did question China's adoption of a 'holier than thou' attitude towards Japan. For example:

@正版不如小米:We have never known how to deeply reflect, but we still expect Japan to deeply reflect...we are still denying our own history yet we still criticise Japan for denying history...how are we stronger than Japan? How are we better than Japan?

@zoefj: I have been hearing about the War of Resistance and nationalist propaganda all day...but you won't even apologise to your own people, why are you demanding Japan apologise for the crimes of those 90 years ago? 

Chinese media coverage of Abe's speech largely accused Abe of not going far enough and of lacking sincerity. One has to wonder what kind of apology would have been acceptable to China. The built-in vagueness of the accusation of insincerity means that regardless of what is actually said, it can always be viewed as not good enough. As an article in Global Times pointed out prior to the speech, even if Abe had apologised, he could still have continued to deny Japan's history of aggression and thus 'betray' his apology. 

For the Chinese Government, an external 'enemy' upon which to focus anger is useful for maintaining stability in Chinese domestic politics. So perhaps nothing Abe says or does will be able mitigate the deep anti-Japanese sentiment in Chinese society. 

Photo by Flickr user James Yeo.