Argument

Nanjing by the Numbers

A new report on the 1937-1938 massacre doesn't settle the contested issue of how many people died -- but it points to a much more significant new consensus between Japan and China.

The "Rape of Nanking," in which invading Japanese soldiers slaughtered and raped a massive number of Chinese civilians, has long been a flashpoint in formal relations between Beijing and Tokyo, as well as a subject capable of arousing strong feelings among the general population of both countries, particularly in China.

The debate was recently reopened by a joint report issued by the governments of China and Japan. But while most newspaper accounts have focused on the remaining points of disagreement -- including the still-disputed death toll -- they've tended to miss the larger significance of the report: that historians appointed by both countries did, for the first time, agree that the Japanese army committed atrocities during the war and that Japan's illegal acts of aggression were the main cause of hostilities.

Ever since the end of the Pacific War in 1945, characterizations of what happened in Nanjing have varied widely depending on whom you ask. At one end of the spectrum, the unfortunate historical episode that began with Japanese troops entering Nanjing in early December 1937 has been referred to as China's counterpart to the Holocaust. At the other end, it has been treated as a predictably bloody wartime effort to assert control over a captured city. Historians in Japan have typically estimated the number killed at between 20,000 and 200,000 Chinese citizens (with those on the far right tending to veer toward small casualty figures), while historians in China have often insisted that more than 300,000 people died, the great majority of them non-combatants. It is not a debate likely to be easily resolved. In the chaos of war (and the conflagration in question was especially chaotic), careful records of the murdered are seldom kept, and accounts of mass burials and burnings of bodies indicates that, in this case, we are likely never to know precisely how many civilian deaths occurred.

Given this background, it was unsurprising that the joint report, written by an officially convened group of China-based and Japan-based historians, failed to come to a consensus on the Nanjing Massacre's death toll.  It is also worth noting that this was apparently not the only issue on which the Chinese and Japanese language versions of the report that were released simultaneously diverged. Some news stories note that there was also a split, for example, on whether the Marco Polo Bridge incident of 1937, a famous battle between China's National Revolutionary Army and the Imperial Japanese Army, was triggered by an "accident"; the Japanese version insisted this had been the case, while the Chinese one left open the possibility that Japan had conspired to bring that conflict about, as China has long claimed. And the section of the report dealing with post-1945 history was withheld, apparently at the request of the Chinese delegation, whose members seemed to be concerned over discussions of more sensitive recent historical events. (A Japanese television clip on the report was even reportedly blacked out in China for its use of footage related to a very different massacre, the one that Chinese troops carried out in Beijing in June of 1989.)

It would be too much to hope that any joint report over the causes and events of the Pacific War would reach accord on every issue. But as partisan as the debate on the Nanjing massacre has often seemed, a close reading of the new report shows that the divide in it over the number killed in that city is not exclusively a political standoff. Instead, it largely reflects scholarly concern over the reliability of the numbers -- on both the Chinese and Japanese sides. And it would be unfortunate if the lack of agreement over death tolls obscured the significant new points of consensus.

The main points of agreement constitute a major step forward in Sino-Japanese relations. For years, there have been some historians in Japan moving toward a more moderate position on Nanjing, but there have also been periodic efforts by Japanese officials to sidestep or minimize the issue of Japanese culpability and misbehavior, their sentiments echoed by a small number of textbooks authorized for use in Japan's classrooms. Japanese leaders have historically ignored pleas to acknowledge fully the extent to which Japan was responsible for Pacific War-era devastation and violence not just in China but also in Korea, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia. So, all in all, the report has much to recommend it.

Unfortunately, coverage of its release in the United States has tended to focus on the continued disagreement over the massacre's death toll. The same has been true in much of the Japanese press. Chinese papers, by contrast, while taking note of the disagreement over numbers, have typically led with what is arguably the much bigger story -- Japan's acknowledgment, in an official report, that the war was due to Japanese aggression.

Still, the report could be a very welcome harbinger of movement away from the old fights about the Pacific War. The "textbook controversies" have unfolded over several decades, but the postmillennial years have been particularly fraught, with high-profile protests in China and South Korea over how the war is taught and memorialized in Japan (even while some Japanese historians and others in Japan have repeatedly called for a more forthright acknowledgment of Japanese wartime atrocities both at home and abroad).

There will probably never be full agreement on the Nanjing numbers. But precise death tolls are not, ultimately, the real issue at hand. The real issue is China's desire that Japan accept responsibility for a tragedy of such great scale and violence. The new report, then, gets to the heart of what has angered victims and their descendents -- Japan's past refusal to acknowledge unequivocally the extent of its historical violence and aggression. In an East Asia increasingly interconnected by economics, politics, and culture, Japan's subtle shift may well ease tensions enough that, in the end, the numbers will become a matter of scholarly discussion rather than the political and cultural flashpoint they have been for decades.

LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Dagestan: Russia's Most Overlooked Hot Spot

Why the coming weeks will only get more dangerous for the troubled North Caucasus Republic.

On Feb. 8, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev selected a new president for the troubled North Caucasus republic of Dagestan. The lead-up to the selection was marked by an uptick in violence, and the political controversy surrounding the choice is likely to lead to even further instability.

When the international media reports on the instability in Russia's North Caucasus at all, reporters tend to focus on the violent chaos in Ingushetia and the repressive governance in Chechnya. But it is recent trends in Dagestan -- Russia's most ethnically diverse province -- that most threaten to further inflame this volatile region. Medvedev's selection of Magomedsalam M. Magomedov, a vocal critic of Dagestan's current government, is seen by many as an admission that the region's problems are spiraling out of control. And this month's events might finally put this volatile flashpoint on the world's agenda.

Historically, violence in Dagestan has stemmed from ongoing conflicts between its major ethnic groups -- the Avars, Dargins, Kumyks, Lezgins, and Laks -- over political power, resources, and jobs. More recently, Islamist militant groups, such as Shariat Jamaat, have forged close ties with Chechen separatists to launch terrorist attacks against the government in an effort to unite Muslims across the North Caucasus. Islamist militants have also taken advantage of Dagestan's high unemployment rate and staggering corruption (even by Russian standards) to actively recruit youth in the republic.

In late 2009, Islamist militants and criminal gangs, often described in the media as neizvestniye, or "unknown [assailants]," frequently attacked government officials, religious leaders, and police, as well as the republic's energy and transportation infrastructure. Electricity blackouts sparked protests in the capital city of Makhachkala, and residents in the town of Derbent witnessed mayoral elections so corrupt that officials overturned the results (a rarity in Putin-era Russia).

Due to changes in the provincial electoral process, Dagestan's People's Assembly must now rubber-stamp the choice made by Medvedev and officials from his United Russia party. Despite the lack of direct elections, the political process in Dagestan has been overtly contentious and punctuated by political violence, a lack of confidence in Moscow, and a transparently corrupt electoral process at the local level, as evidenced by a judge's decision to nullify October's mayoral election results in Derbent.

The murder of Interior Minister Adilgerei Magomedtagirov last year exemplifies how political figures have recently become targets of violence. Observers viewed Magomedtagirov as a potential challenger to the rule of incumbent President Mukhu Aliyev, who has governed Dagestan since 2006. On June 5, snipers shot and killed him as he stepped outside during a wedding in Makhachkala, and authorities still have not apprehended any suspects. In the run-up to the presidential selection, attacks and threats against political figures and institutions continued. On Jan. 13 and 14, authorities shut down central Makhachkala due to a threat of a terrorist attack against several prominent locations, including the presidential administration building and Dagestan's Supreme Court. Two weeks later, unknown assailants shot at the motorcade of Nikolai Alchiyev, deputy chairman of Dagestan's People's Assembly.

Adding to the threat of political violence, there is also an unusually low level of confidence in Russian leaders, and particularly United Russia's selection of election candidates. On Nov. 26, Dagestan's legislature passed a motion asking Medvedev to hold further "consultations" about the most suitable candidate. The motion was an unusual public riposte against United Russia's regional governance. Some politicians' open dissatisfaction with the process led to a rumor that Dagestan's branch of United Russia planned a mass exodus from the party, but regional representatives have since denied all rumors of a potential split.

Meanwhile, Dagestan is experiencing a spate of attacks targeted at police officials, local administrators, and religious leaders. "Gangs" or unidentified individuals attacked police, security force members, or government officials 18 times -- leaving 11 dead and 11 wounded -- from mid-October through mid-December 2009, based on data compiled through the Emerging Threats Project at Georgetown University's Imaging Science and Information Systems Center.

While Ingushetia and Chechnya have also had their share of political violence, attacks against religious leaders are unique to Dagestan. For instance, on Nov. 2 unknown assailants shot and killed an imam based at a mosque in Bavtugai. A few weeks later, unidentified attackers shot and wounded a village imam in Staroye Miatli.

Worrisome as these attacks are, the disruption of transportation and energy networks may be the greater threat to stability. During the same two-month span, "gangs" and unknown assailants detonated bombs along rail lines on four occasions, and police disrupted two attempts to bury roadside bombs. Russia's rail network, as shown by the more deadly and well-known bombing of the Moscow-St. Petersburg railway line in November, is particularly vulnerable, and on each occasion the attacks disrupt rail service through the region.

Russia's vital natural gas pipelines are equally vulnerable. On Nov. 11, police accused "gangs" of detonating a bomb along the Mozdok-Gazimagomed natural gas pipeline. The explosion disrupted service along the pipeline for 560 kilometers and cut service to Makhachkala. The service disruption is particularly troubling in the capital because of ongoing problems with electricity. Even before the bombing, there were multiple blackouts in the capital during the past six months due to poor infrastructure and a lack of financing, prompting street protests. Although political violence and corrupt elections may not outrage Dagestan's jaded populace, poor infrastructure and public services appear to be enough to upset and galvanize citizens.

By all accounts, 2010 will be a difficult year for Dagestan, and its upcoming presidential "selection" is poised to exacerbate already simmering tensions caused by opaque political procedures, corrupt election practices, rampant violence, and vulnerable infrastructure. Since the beginning of the year, there have already been several high-profile attacks. On Jan. 6, Islamist militants used a car bomb to attack a highway police post in Makhachkala that killed six officers; seven days later, unidentified assailants detonated a bomb along the Mozdok-Gazimagomed pipeline once again.

Russian officials can take a first step toward improving Dagestan's pervasive violence by approaching and describing violence in more exact and realistic terms. Russia does not face a threat from terrorists trained by Georgian special forces, as Russia's Federal Security Service recently claimed, or by members of nondescript "gangs" or "illegally armed formations." Contemporary scapegoats and vague descriptions disguise the full extent of Islamist militant activities occurring in Dagestan and the rest of Russia's North Caucasus.

Russian officials and, by extension, the Russian media do themselves no favors by relying on contemporary scapegoats or vague classifications to describe attackers. In Russia's most ethnically diverse region, the conflicts are deep, complex, and increasingly connected to Islamist militants, and it would be beneficial if Russian authorities and the press recognized it as such.

ABDULA MAGOMEDOV/AFP/Getty Images