— Day after day, the gory confessions spill out from China’s newspapers — rape, murder, beheadings, even a plot to infect villagers’ chopsticks and kitchen knives with typhoid bacteria. The crimes were committed by Japanese soldiers seven decades ago, but the stories are being dusted off for a new era of confrontation.

The confessions — appearing one a day, for 45 days — are part of a relentless drumbeat of anti-Japanese propaganda here. The campaign is partly timed to coincide with the 77th anniversary this month of the start of China’s war with Japan, but it is also part of a longer war of words with Beijing’s main Asian rival. The campaign is supposed to force Japan to come to terms with its wartime past, but it is also meant to inspire domestic nationalism and bolster the Communist Party’s credentials as defender of the Chinese people.

It is a campaign that dismays moderate intellectuals but finds constant affirmation among China’s nationalist netizens. And it is getting increasingly ugly.

“Japan wants a war again,” proclaimed one regional Chinese Communist Party newspaper this month, depicting mushroom clouds rising above the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on a map of the country. The map, in the Chongqing Youth News, provoked outrage in Japan but no self-reflection here: China’s nationalist Global Times newspaper dismissed Tokyo’s objections as “ridiculous.”

After the June 1989 massacre of protesters in Tiananmen Square, China’s Communist Party looked for a new legitimacy by promising prosperity and embracing nationalism. Chinese history was recast to stress a century of “humiliation” by foreign invaders, from the British and French in the Opium Wars of the 19th century to the Japanese in the occupation of the 20th century.

China and Japan’s opinion war

The Communist Party’s supposed ability to make China “great” remains a prominent theme; the “revival of the Chinese nation” is the foundation of President Xi Jinping’s “Chinese dream.”

Japan is an easy target. A territorial dispute over islands in the East China Sea has helped light the fire of Chinese nationalism, but the flames have been fanned by what people here see as Japan’s inability to come to terms with its shameful past. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit last December to the Yasukuni shrine, home to the remains of several leading Japanese war criminals, and his recent move to reinterpret the nation’s pacifist constitution to expand the military's role, have been greeted with outrage here.

China is vividly reminding its citizens about the outrages committed by Japanese soldiers seven decades ago.

One of the recent articles featured the confession by Japanese army officer Shuichi Kikuchi, who acknowledged murdering more than 700 Chinese civilians; raping 39 women; stabbing, beating and torturing others between 1938 and 1945; and even ordering the vivisection of two prisoners.

Another soldier, Giichi Sumioka, admitted to spreading typhoid and cholera bacteria through villages in northern China, by protecting medical staff as they smeared bowls, knives and chopsticks with germs.

“History is history, and facts are facts. Nobody can change history and facts,” Xi declared on July 7, at an event marking the 77th anniversary of hostilities.

The Chinese people will not tolerate anyone “who attempts to deny, distort or beautify the history of aggression,” he said at the ceremony, speaking before more than 1,000 officials, veterans and schoolchildren at the Museum of the War of the Chinese People’s Resistance Against Japanese Aggression on the outskirts of Beijing.

In December, China will mark the anniversary of the Nanjing massacre, when tens of thousands of civilians and disarmed combatants were killed by Japanese troops. A National Memorial Web site has been established to present evidence of Japanese war crimes.

On social media, appeals to boycott Japanese goods mix with earnest calls to never forget “how some of our ancestors were bullied so miserably” and to ensure “our nation is never bullied again.”

The Chinese dream, commented one widely circulated post, was not only that China’s soccer team would win the World Cup and the U.N. headquarters would relocate to Beijing, but that a natural disaster would strike Japan, “and no survivors have been found alive yet.”

Historian Zhang Lifan said the nation was being brainwashed in a bid to justify one-party rule, and that Xi was playing up the threat from Japan in order to push through reform of this country’s powerful military.

Fears of a backlash
But nationalism is a dangerous tiger to ride, and many wonder if powerful emotions once stirred might one day turn back on the government. It is not uncommon to see social media criticism of China’s foreign ministry for being too weak or for “trying to please the United States.”

Paul Haenle, director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing, called the anti-Japan campaign “striking and confounding.”

Anti-Japanese sentiment makes it harder for China’s leaders to manage relations with Japan and to prevent military tensions in the East China Sea from deteriorating into conflict. Neither side wants war, Haenle said. China is trying to convince the world that it intends to rise in a peaceful manner.

“Heightened nationalism and hatred among the Chinese public will make these efforts more difficult for leaders in Beijing,” he said.

But the greatest irony, perhaps, lies in the moral high ground claimed by China’s Communist Party rulers as they lecture the Japanese on the importance of learning the lessons of history.

The party, historians point out, has enforced a collective amnesia on the Chinese nation, ruthlessly burying the history of the Tiananmen Square massacre but also grossly playing down the Great Famine that struck the country under Mao Zedong’s rule, and the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. “It is just using history selectively, not with an objective or serious attitude,” Zhang said.

Gu Jinglu, Xu Yangjingjing and Xu Jing contributed to this report.