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Dynamic Statism and Memory Politics: A Case Analysis of the Chinese War Reparations Movement*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 March 2010


This study addresses the Chinese Second World War victims' reparations movement (CWRM) against Japan as a case of contemporary Chinese memory politics. While many studies indicate the Chinese government's use of the war memories for political purposes, ours focuses on how official discourses are translated into citizens' political participation and how the state–society interactions lead to variation in the development of the movement sectors within the case of CWRM. Drawing on textual and ethnographic data and a theoretical “dynamic statism,” we argue that the central government's ambivalent attitude towards this ideologically useful yet institutionally troublesome movement created room for local governments and the movement to pursue their own causes. Yet the local and central governments' strong interventions, either facilitation or repression, discouraged civil society's participation and led to the underdevelopment of some movement sectors. In the sectors where the local governments held an attitude of absenteeism or co-operation, the movement was able to mobilize resources from civil society and state institutions and finally developed well.

Research Article
Copyright © The China Quarterly 2010

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An earlier version of this article was presented at the International Studies Association meeting in San Francisco, 2008. For helpful comments on early versions, thanks to Gary Alan Fine, Yinan He,Victoria Tin-Bor Hui, Mikyoung Kim, Monica Prasad, Barry Schwartz and Dingxin Zhao. The research was supported by the Graduate Summer Research Grant from The Roberta Buffett Center for International and Comparative Studies and the Graduate Research Grant from the Graduate School at Northwestern University.


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11 Yinan He, “Remembering and forgetting the war.”

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19 Saich, “Negotiating the state”; Cai, Yongshun, “Local governments and the suppression of popular resistance in China,” The China Quarterly, No. 193 (2008), pp. 2442Google Scholar.

20 Koopmans, Ruud and Olzak, Susan, “Discursive opportunities and the evolution of right-wing violence in Germany,” American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 110, No. 1 (2004), pp. 298330CrossRefGoogle Scholar; McCammon, Holly J., Muse, Courtney Sanders, Newman, Harmony D. and Terrell, Teresa M., “Movement framing and discursive opportunity structures: the political successes of the US women's jury movements,” American Sociological Review, Vol. 72, No. 5 (2007), pp. 725–49CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

21 In 1991, Tong Zeng, a legal scholar, wrote a “ten-thousand-word-letter” to some representatives to the National People's Congress, petitioning to ask reparations from Japan. Some of the representatives did raise a motion to the NPC, yet the efforts were not successful. Chinese sources can be found in Ronghuan, Wang, “9/18: six rounds of civil reparations,” Fazhi shibao (Legal Service Times), 12 September 2003Google Scholar. Tong's “ten-thousand-word-letter” can be found in various websites, e.g. English reports can be found in “Chinese hardliners to demand war compensations from Japan,” Japan Economic Newswire, Kyodo News Service, 9 March 1992 and various other news agencies.

22 This number does not include many informal conversations with legal scholars and historians working on reparations and Second World War issues.

23 Changde, June 2007, and Yiwu, June 2007.

24 One commemoration ritual held by Chongqing victims and activists, 5 June 2007; one meeting of an SMO in Beijing, 24 June 2007; a conference held by bacterial weapon victims and activists in Shanghai, 6–8 July 2007; an exhibition about the “comfort women” in a university in Shanghai, 6 July 2007. The first author also did participant observations of numerous informal activities, such as dinners, encounters and casual talks.

25 O'Brien, Kevin J., “Discovery, research (re) design and theory building,” in Heimer, Maria and Thogersen, Stig (eds.), Doing Fieldwork in China (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2006), p. 37Google Scholar.

26 We collected reports about CWRM from Chinese and English media published in Japan, Europe and the United States. The Chinese reports are collected through China National Knowledge Infrastructure (CNKI,, traditional library collections in Shanghai and Hangzhou, online news portals such as, and some websites established by people related to the movement, such as We divided the reports into state core media (such as the People's Daily, Xinhua News Agency, which reflect the state's attitude towards the movement) and state-sponsored media (with more diverse and less carefully designed reports). English media reports are collected through

27 Yalin, Liu and Jigang, Gong, Xijun zhan shouhaizhe suopei (The Bacterial Warfare Victims' Litigation) (Changsha, China: Hunan renmin ribao. 2004)Google Scholar, Xianghong, Nan, Wang Xuan de banian kangzhan (Wang Xuan's Eight-year Resistance War) (Beijing: Shiyue wenyi ribao, 2005)Google Scholar. Also see a two-volume collection of scholarly articles about war compensations: Zhiliang, Su, Weimu, Rong and Lifei, Chen (eds.), Riben qinghua zhanzheng yiliu wenti he peichang wenti (The Remaining Issues and Compensations Issue of Japanese Invasion War against China) (Beijing: Commercial Press, 2005)Google Scholar.

28 With permission from several leading activists, the first author signed up on an email listserv of bacterial warfare litigations. We monitored the discussions from June 2007 to the present. The listserv includes participants from various places, including Canada, Japan and the US.

29 For the purpose of language parsimony, we use Yiwu to represent all the movement sub-sectors in Zhejiang province. Among them, Yiwu is certainly the most prominent and representative, but it does not mean we ignore the contributions of activists in other places.

30 Changde and Yiwu share the same lawsuit, but in terms of their social movement activity, they are quite independent of each other.

31 Our measurements of development include: number of regular participants; does an SMO exist?; does it work well?; financial situation of SMO, if any. The sectors which develop better have more participants, well-functioning SMOs and better financial situations.

32 Two cases filed by the Massacre victims, Li Xiuyin and Xia Shuqing, were about the plaintiffs' “reputation.” Moreover, there are no indicators of social movement (collective actions, SMOs, etc.) about the Massacre reparations.

33 “Negative case” means there is no such a phenomenon. See Mahoney, James and Goertz, Gary, “The possibility principle: choosing negative cases in comparative research,” American Political Science Review, Vol. 98, No. 4 (2004), pp. 653–69CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

34 High-ranking foreign-service officials' comments were inconsistent and ambiguous. For example, Qian Qicheng verbally confirmed individual citizens' demand in 1992 (“Qian Qichen backs demand for Japanese war reparations,” Japanese Economic Newswire, 23 March 1992), while Tang Jiaxuan said in 1995 that “We are not ‘supporting’ these people, but ‘we feel sympathy’ for them” (“China voices ‘compassion’ for war compensation calls,” Japanese Economic Newswire, 4 April 1995). Also see “Individuals ‘cannot claim war damages’,” Hong Kong Standard, 17 December 1998. In most cases, especially in the reports on Chinese official media, the Chinese government condemns Japan courts' ruling but does not directly clarify whether individual citizens have rights to demand compensations. For example, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao claimed that the Japanese Supreme Court's statement that “the Chinese government has given up individuals' reparations right” was “illegal and invalid.” The Chinese government, he said, urged Japan to “settle the issue” but still avoided the question (“the Chinese government strongly protests the Japanese Supreme's ungrounded interpretation of the article about the renouncing the war reparations in the China–Japan communique” (“Zhongfang qianglie fandui Ri zuigao fayuan renyi jieshi Zhongguo zhengfu zai ZhongRi lianhe shenmin zhong xuanbu fangqi duiRizhanzhen peikuan yaoqiu de tiao kuan”), in the People's Daily, April 2007, p. 5). The background of this comment was the Japanese Supreme Court dismissing all reparations from China according to its juristic explanation. When the first author was in the field, many activists strongly criticized the Chinese government's “vague” and “clichéd” statement.

35 See n. 21.

36 For instance, one of the leading activists for bacterial weapon victims did try to register the SMO with Zhejiang province but did not succeed (interview with SH-1, 13 June 2007). To protect the research subjects' privacy, we use code to refer to individual interviewees.

37 The first author has a leading activist's business card, on which 索赔团 is printed but crossed out and replaced by handwritten 索赔案.

38 A casual conversation with one of the Chongqing activists. Another interview with one of the leading activists located in Yiwu also suggests this nuance (12 July 2007).

39 The bottom-line for this vague message was not to petition to the central government and not to pursue official status for the SMOs. The ethnographic evidence in all the sectors supports this observation. For example, the movement activists in Changde, who are several local officials, reported to the Foreign Affairs when they tried to co-operate with victims to file lawsuits. The message they got was a “yes.” But when they established their organizations, they received a call from the Central Foreign Affairs and the local National Security ordering them not to give a name to this organization. In other words, the organization had to run without a name for a long time and later added a “preparation” to show its unofficial status.

40 During the Sino-Japanese War, the Japanese army used bacterial bombs and other methods to spread bubonic plague in Zhejiang and other provinces. See Harris, Sheldon, Factories of Death: Japanese Biological Warfare, 1932–45 and the American Cover-Up (New York: Routledge, 2002)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

41 Yalin, Liu and Jigang, Gong, Xijun zhan shouhaizhe suopei (The Bacterial Warfare Victims' Litigation) (Changsha: Hunan renmin ribao, 2004), pp. 181–82Google Scholar. Interviews with several informants also supported this.

42 Interview with SH-1 (13 June 2007). Other people's comments on Wang Xuan's personality and relationship with Japanese lawyers corroborate this interview (e.g. a casual talk with a Changde government official).

43 Interviews with SH-1, a leading activist for bacterial warfare victims, 13 June 2007, YW-1, a local activist, 11 July 2007, YW-3, a leading local activist, 12 July 2007.

44 The first author visited the house of one of the plaintiffs/activists. This person has a son running a successful transportation business, and the son paid for the activist's trips to Japan. The SMO also had a regulated financial system in which each branch in several locations was responsible for its own travelling expenses to Japan. Interviews with SH-1, 134 June 2007, YW-1, 11 July 2007.

45 Interview with YW-3, 12 July 2007, and participant observation.

46 Interview with CD-2, a government official, 22 July 2007.

47 Information from a roster of members of the organization.

48 Focus group interview with five activists, 21 July 2007.

49 Interview CD-2, 22 July 2007.

50 Activists outside Changde accused the officials of taking advantage of the opportunity to tour around Japan (interview with YW-2, 11 July 2009). Although the Changde officials denied that, it was true that the officials usually significantly outnumbered victims in the litigation “delegation” to Japan: only a couple of victims accompanied by more than 20 officials and local elites (evidence from the name lists of the delegations). Despite the SMO's financial difficulty, ironically, the officials' travel expenses to Japan were reimbursed by the local government, while the plaintiffs had to pay for themselves.

51 Interview with this entrepreneur, 22 July 2007.

52 Focus group interview with five activists, 21 July 2007.

53 The All-China Association of Lawyers sets up a special group for the reparations cases of forced labourers. See for information.

54 During the Second World War, some Chinese peasants and POWs were transported to Japan and forced to work in horrible conditions. Almost half of them died in Japan. Hanaoka is the name of one of the places where the forced labourers worked for Kajima Group (Kajima Construction Ltd today, a construction giant in Japan). Some labourers, led by a POW called Geng Chun, launched an unsuccessful rebellion on the site.

55 Major lawyers are from the All-China Lawyers Association, the official bar association. In recent years, another lawyer with little governmental background took over the case, which has become hopeless.

56 Seraphim, Franziska, War Memory and Social Politics in Japan, 1945–2005 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2006), p. 132CrossRefGoogle Scholar. One of the leading lawyers in Hanaoka case is the chair of the local Japan–China Friendship Association (interview); other activists, including a Chinese living in Japan, also have unusual connections with the Chinese government. See a recently set up website devoted to the Hanaoka incident ( to get a sense of the connection. Also see n. 58.

57 “Foreign Affairs spokesman comments on Hanaoka agreement,” Xinhua News Agency, 30 November 2000.

58 See for a series of debate documents. Also see an article published by one of the major lawyers working for reparations: Guan Jianqiang, “The civil reparations claims against Japan: reconcilement is no substitute for apology,” Zhongguo qingnian bao, 30 September 2004. Also, on the email list of Wang Xuan there are many debates about the issue. Some emails directly question the intention of the “Chinese Japanese leader” who actively participated. The debate is still going on.

59 On 4 August 2003, several construction workers in Qiqihaer accidentally discovered a number of poisonous gas bombs abandoned by the Imperial Army. The gas leaked out and caused severe damage to the workers' bodies. The incident incurred a large-scale online name-signing protest against Japan. See for information.

60 Interviews with BJ-1, a lawyer for chemical weapon and forced labourers, 25 June 2007, with HLJ-1, a lawyer/activist for chemical weapon victims, 8 July 2007.

61 Interview with HLJ-1, this lawyer, 8 July 2007.

62 The SMO's office was provided by a Taiwanese merchant, but the SMO even had trouble paying utilities, which amounted to only 1,200 yuan (approximately $160) per month (interview with CQ-3, a leading activist, 3 June 2007).

63 Interview with CQ-7, this early activist, 5 June 2007.

64 Ibid.

65 This information was obtained from copies of the letters this man gave the first author when he was in the field.

66 Interview with CQ-4, this lawyer, 4 June 2007.

67 The term “comfort women” was a euphemism that refers to young females from Korea, China, and South-East Asia who were forced and deceived to provide sex services to the Japanese troops during the Second World War. See Choi, Chungmoo, The Comfort Women: Colonialism, War and Sex (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997)Google Scholar.

68 In fact, the major lawyer working on the case was the same one as for the forced labourers' case.

69 The website of this memorial:

70 Guobin, Yang, “Environmental NGOs and institutional dynamics in China,” The China Quarterly, No. 181 (2005), pp. 4666Google Scholar; Sun, Yanfei and Zhao, Dingxin, “State–society relations and environmental campaigns,” in O'Brien, Kevin (ed.), Popular Protest in China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), pp. 144–62Google Scholar.

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