The Japanese government's frequent mixed messages over its stance on its actions during the first half of the 20th century rightfully provoke strong criticism from other countries in East Asia and other parts of the world. China, in particular, often reacts with fury when Japan approves a textbook that glosses over the invasion of China, comfort women, or the Rape of Nanking, or when the Japanese Prime Minister visits Yasukuni Shrine, a temple dedicated to Japanese Soldiers, including convicted war criminals. China and other countries victimized by Japan during the 20th century have every right to be upset when the Japanese government engages in doubletalk regarding those events. However, China's anger at Japan often appears to be more carefully orchestrated political moves than spontaneous outbursts. Though China undoubtedly has a moral upper-hand over Japan when it comes to history, as China's economy and military continue to expand, its use of that history as a political tool will become more transparent.
In April 2005, the Japanese Ministry of Education approved the use of a textbook which minimized Japan's aggressive role in China, amongst other things. Although the textbook is used in less than 1% of Japanese schools, it caused a furor in China, which resulted in violent anti-Japanese protests, including destruction and vandalism of Japanese businesses. The Chinese government allowed, if not encouraged, these demonstrations for several days, before putting a stop to them. After the row between the two countries reached its peak, the Japanese Prime Minister gave an official apology for Japan's wartime past, and asked for an apology for China for the destruction of its property. China refused to apologize. The reason for its refusal is simple: domestically, the anti-Japanese outbursts help the Chinese government increase patriotism and nationalism among its population, especially its youth. For China, Japan makes a perfect scapegoat for its internal political problems.
This is all part of a strategy that China has been using for decades―portraying itself as the poor, struggling victim of the evil Imperialists, be they Japanese or American, or even Soviet. One could see this as a lasting influence of China's Marxist roots, pitting the proletariat against the bourgeoisie, or one can go back even further, to China's original view of itself as the 'middle kingdom'―the only true civilization surrounded by barbarians. Either way, Japan makes the perfect bourgeoisie, or the perfect barbarians, for China to turn against or be the victim of. No doubt, China was a victim of colonialism, both by the West and by the Japanese. But that was over 60 years ago. Now, they are far from being a victim of anyone. Nobody could blame an actual victim of Japanese aggression for being intensely angry. But watching any of the violent anti-Japanese protests, it's hard not to notice that the vast majority of the people who apparently are intensely angry are relatively affluent 21 and 22 year-old college students, whose only real contact with war has come from PC Cafes.
Moreover, China's accusations that Japan has a 'wrong' view of history, or that Japan has not properly atoned for its actions a generation ago, are partially true but hypocritical. When it comes to teaching a 'correct' view of history, China itself does not have a strong record. Try searching for an account of Tiananmen Square in a Chinese textbook. Or detailed accounts of the Great Leap Forward, or the Cultural Revolution, or a balanced account of the Korean War, or China's brutal occupation of Tibet, or any other issue. Heck, try going to China and searching the Internet for balanced resources on any of these subjects, or for any genuine criticism of the Chinese government. You won't find them because the government blocks sites that discuss them. Moreover, if another country were to act in a similar way toward China, they would (and has) deem it as 'interfering' in its 'internal affairs'. For China, pointing hundreds of ballistic missiles and constantly threatening a small, democratic island is an internal affair. Tearing down monasteries in Tibet is an internal affair. Arresting and imprisoning foreign activists is an internal affair. Somehow, however, the textbooks that Japan uses in its own schools, or the domestic travels of its Prime Minister, are an international issue.
The good news in all of this is that the current spat over Japan's remembrance of comfort women did not result in nearly as much of the venomous anti-Japanese rhetoric, let alone the violence, that occurred few years ago. China was surprisingly diplomatic during this latest conflict, perhaps finally seeing the pragmatic advantages of taking and staying on the moral high road. If China wants to be taken seriously as a major power, it needs to act with the tact it exhibited in 2007, not the pedestrian violence and bigotry of 2005. Taking a dispute over a couple of sparsely-used textbooks and channeling it into hatred of another country is not a way to win respect or admiration in the world. Being confident and resolute in one's position, while remaining calm and reasonable, however, shows a lot of class. Nobody questions the wrongness of Japan's whitewashing of history. The only thing that is questionable is China's reaction to it.