Why China mutes its comfort women

Why China mutes its comfort women

The comfort women controversy has dogged Tokyo-Seoul relations since the early 1990s, but Japan’s wartime network of “comfort stations” or military brothels was located mainly in China.

Though the “Patriotic War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression” has long been central to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) patriotic education campaign, Beijing has proven comparatively hesitant and ambivalent on this issue.

Advocacy on behalf of comfort women emerged out of an upsurge of feminism in post-Cold War East Asia, sometimes intersecting awkwardly with anti-Japanese nationalism. Across the region, state-led modernization came at the heavy cost of institutionalized discrimination against women.

The fact that East Asia today boasts the world’s lowest fertility rates is attributable in part to female dissatisfaction with a developmental model and employment practices that depend on women’s unpaid labor.

The particular enthusiasm with which the comfort women’s cause was espoused by feminist groups in early 1990s South Korea reflected a hope that this egregious case might help launch a wider debate over institutionalized misogyny. Not just in newly-democratic South Korea, but also in Japan feminists saw the “comfort women” phenomenon as a potent symbol of women’s oppression.

But the strength of patriarchal institutions and ideologies has stymied or warped campaigns on behalf of comfort women. Whether in South Korea, Japan or China, nationalist agendas have trumped the pursuit of transnational feminism.

The politics of entrenched misogyny has caused the comfort women story to be framed to avoid inquiry into the contexts of class-based and gender inequality that first enabled the exploitation, then ensured the victims were ignored.

South Korean protesters hold a sign during a weekly anti-Japanese demonstration supporting comfort women who served as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers during World War II, near the Japanese embassy in Seoul on July 24, 2019. Photo: AFP / Jung Yeon-je

This is especially true in China, where the past decade has seen a nascent feminist movement snuffed out by intensified CCP repression. The authorities continue to police women’s fertility, even while the longstanding one-child policy yields to a natalist push against demographic shrinkage.

In China, as elsewhere, the documenting of former comfort women’s experiences and advocacy on their behalf has owed much to grassroots campaigners and activist scholars.

Zhang Shuangbing, a schoolteacher, identified the first comfort women survivor in China in the late 1980s, but his efforts to publicize the issue were obstructed by authorities.

Su Zhiliang, a history professor at Shanghai Normal University who began investigating Chinese comfort women in the early 1990s, for many years struggled to secure research funding. Attempts to solicit Chinese state support for impoverished elderly survivors fell on deaf ears.

A shift came in 2012, as Xi Jinping’s assumption of the CCP leadership coincided with a marked worsening in Chinese-Japanese relations. Xi’s nationalism was mirrored in Japan by Shinzo Abe. The sensitivity of Abe and his supporters to needling on the comfort women issue may have encouraged CCP propagandists to weaponize it.

With most victims now dead or incapacitated by age, the matter was less about redress for the violated than about heritage and commemoration. China’s authorities saw a chance to appropriate the narrative for their own ends.

This was achieved primarily through framing. The story told at new museums in Shanghai and Nanjing, drawing on research by Su and others, is largely sound. But Chinese exhibitions invariably underline the uniqueness of the comfort women system in order to highlight Japanese immorality. The CCP shows no interest in stimulating critical reflection on the continuing abuse of women in contemporary East Asia.

What did interest the CCP was deploying wartime heritage to isolate Tokyo diplomatically. Following a successful 2015 application for UNESCO Memory of the World listing for a Nanjing Massacre archive, Beijing lent its support to an international coalition seeking registration for comfort women documents.

This brought together activists across the region determined to ensure that, as the last surviving comfort women passed away, their experience was not forgotten.

But Japanese diplomats were determined to deny such commemorative efforts the stamp of UNESCO approval. Threatening to withdraw its funding from the organization, Tokyo secured a suspension of all new Memory of the World registrations in 2017.

When the scheme reopened to new applications in 2021, new rules ensured that national representatives, rather than expert committees, would be the ultimate arbiters of the process. The route to a UNESCO registration for the comfort women archive had effectively been blocked.

State media in China have continued sporadically to publicize the issue, for example by marking the annual “comfort women commemoration day” on August 14. But the CCP’s commitment to campaigning for international recognition of these women’s experiences has waned.

Comfort women statues in a Shanghai park. Photo: AFP / Johannes Eisele

Japan’s successful maneuvering has something to do with this, but more significant may be China’s changing relations with its neighbors. Since the mid-2010s, fear of Chinese expansionism across East (especially Northeast) Asia has increasingly eclipsed residual anger over Japan’s mid-20th-century atrocities.

More people are today exercised by fears of the next world war than by increasingly remote memories of the last one.

Meanwhile, for all the hopes invested by feminists in activism on behalf of comfort women as a means of garnering public support, the picture across the region remains stubbornly grim.

The 2022 Global Gender Gap index places South Korea, China and Japan respectively at 99th, 102nd and 116th out of 146 countries. Across East Asia, patriarchal structures remain largely undisturbed, even if popular attitudes may be slowly changing.

Edward Vickers is Professor of Comparative Education at Kyushu University, where he holds the UNESCO Chair on Education for Peace, Social Justice and Global Citizenship.

This article was originally published by East Asia Forum and is republished under a Creative Commons license.