updated 12/13/2007 8:34:17 PM ET 2007-12-14T01:34:17

Sirens sounded and students stood at attention Thursday to mark the 70th anniversary of Japan's notorious wartime massacre of civilians in the Chinese city of Nanjing.

The commemoration, which comes as China's government pushes to improve relations with Tokyo and avoid inflaming nationalist passions at home, brought the city to a standstill, state television showed.

The city reopened a vastly expanded memorial to the victims of the massacre long known in the West as the "Rape of Nanking."

Air raid sirens blared at 10 a.m., followed by a moment of silence, and new artifacts testifying to the savagery of Japan's Imperial Army went on display in the memorial's collection.

In line with the move to boost relations with Japan, reports on the anniversary and commemorations in the entirely state-controlled media have been understated, avoiding mention of long-standing demands for greater displays of contrition from Tokyo.

That comes amid plans for President Hu Jintao to visit Japan next year — the first visit by a Chinese head of state in a decade. Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda is also expected to visit China soon.

Controversy continues
"The Chinese government hopes that on the basis of taking history as a mirror for the benefit of the future, to develop long-term good neighborliness and cooperation with Japan," Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told a regular news briefing.

The events that began on Dec. 13, 1937, in Nanjing are still the subject of debate and controversy.

Angered by resistance as they invaded central China, Japanese troops began a rampage that many historians generally agree ended with the slaughter of at least 150,000 civilians. Soldiers were disarmed and executed and tens of thousands of women were raped in Nanjing, then the capital of China's Nationalist government.

China puts the number killed at 300,000, making it one of the worst atrocities of the World War II era. The official interpretation of the event as a "national shame" is used in schools and propaganda to rally Chinese behind the communist government, whose policies are portrayed as keeping China strong.

Japan has fringe groups that deny any atrocity took place, saying the massacre was a fabrication of the Communist government. Their denials and Tokyo's more assertive foreign policy have touched off Chinese fears of a revival of Japanese militarism.

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