TOKYO -- On the morning of Dec. 13, Chinese President Xi Jinping walked through the vast compound of the Nanjing Memorial Hall of the Victims in Jiangsu Province to attend the 80th-year commemoration of the Nanjing Massacre.
By his side were Yu Zhengsheng, who recently retired from the nation's top leadership as member of the Communist Party's Politburo Standing Committee, Ding Xuexiang, Xi's personal secretary and Liu He, his economic advisor.
State broadcaster CCTV followed Xi's every move, as he joined 10,000 attendants in paying silent tribute to the victims as sirens rang throughout the city.
As the ceremony proceeded, most viewers expected Xi to walk to the podium and give a speech, as he did three years ago. But it was Yu, not Xi, that did. The powerful Chinese leader stood motionless and listened. When it became clear that Xi was not going to speak, a murmur could be heard from the Chinese and foreign journalists covering the ceremony.
Speculation is rife as to why Xi kept a low profile and chose not to speak at the big ceremony.
The Xuzhou visit
The truth is that while all eyes on Dec. 13 were on the memorial service in Nanjing, Xi had another reason to be in the province: to visit Xuzhou. And it could be related to his upcoming diplomacy with Japan.
The city of Xuzhou, in northwest Jiangsu, is one of the most important railway hubs in China, having direct connections to Shanghai, the provinces of Henan and Shandong and the neighboring port city of Lianyungang.
It is also important militarily, being home to the newly established 71st Group Army.
When Xi directed a bold reorganization of the military in April, he slashed five of the People's Liberation Army (PLA)'s 18 army corps. The remaining 13 corps were assigned new numbers, beginning at 71 and ending at 83. The first of those was given to the troops in Xuzhou.
The number 71 stands for July 1st, the day the Chinese Communist Party was formed in Shanghai, in 1921.
The Xuzhou army corps, was part of the former broader Nanjing Military Region, responsible for overseeing a Taiwan contingency, and therefore known to host some of China's most elite units.
The Nanjing Military Region was the power base of former Chinese President Jiang Zemin, a native of Yangzhou, Jiangsu. Jiang later rose through the ranks in nearby Shanghai.
Building on his ties in the former Nanjing Military Region, Jiang developed and wielded enormous influence throughout the armed forces. The Nanjing Military Region's forces, especially those based in Jiangsu, had previously been seen as being under Jiang's direct control.
Xi himself is not unfamiliar to this coastal region of east China. He worked in Fujian Province for nearly 17 years, taking various party and government posts. He later became Zhejiang Province's top official.
There are numerous military officials in the former Nanjing Military Region, now the Eastern Theater Command, that Xi knows and trusts from his time in Fujian and Zhejiang. Xi has appointed many of them to senior military posts as part of his efforts to weaken Jiang.
Xi's visit to the 71st Group Army was aimed at projecting a new message: That the former Nanjing Military Region is now under Xi's grip.
Xi went on a short trip to Xuzhou from Dec. 12 to 13. This was despite South Korean President Moon Jae-in planning to arrive in Beijing on the 13th.
Attending the Nanjing ceremony was a side trip, and Xi shuttled back and forth to Nanjing -- located some 300 kms south -- to attend the memorial. As soon as the Nanjing ceremony ended, Xi returned to Xuzhou accompanied by top uniformed military officer Xu Qiliang to continue his inspection.
When visiting the 71st Group Army, Xi met with young soldiers who just joined the army. They sat in a circle.
Xi spoke to one of the young soldiers in a friendly manner. "How old are you?" he asked. The soldier replied "18 years old" in a cheerful voice, relishing the opportunity to speak with China's "core" leader.
CCTV's coverage the next day reflected the importance of the Xuzhou visit. First up on the 7 p.m. main news program was Xi's visit to the 71st Group. After a detailed report on the significance of the inspection, the program went on to the second news of the day: the visit of the South Korean president.
Xi's no-speech at Nanjing combined with his attitude toward Moon drop hints into his thinking toward Japan.
Xi ignores Moon's proposal
During his visit to Beijing, Moon apparently tried to forge a united front against Japan over its unwillingness to "squarely face" its history. In his meeting with Xi on Dec. 14, Moon extended his empathy to the Nanjing victims, as he did when he met with Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli the day before. Moon directed his ambassador to China to attend the Nanjing ceremony.
Faced with the possibility of a North Korea war, the South Korean president strangely chose to go after Japan. On the last day of his China trip, Moon visited Chongqing, where the Korean Provisional Government set up shop while the Korean Peninsula was under Japanese colonial rule from 1910 to 1945.
Yet, state media coverage of the events showed no response from Xi over history-related issues. The only response came from a foreign ministry spokesman who praised Moon's friendship. "China stands ready to work with the Republic of Korea to safeguard the truth of history," spokesman Lu Kang said at the daily press conference when asked for a response.
The question here is: Did Xi keep a low profile at least partly out of diplomatic consideration to Japan? The answer remains unclear.
To be sure, there are signs that Sino-Japanese diplomatic ties are thawing. No anti-Japanese hardliner was among the Chinese dignitaries present at the Nanjing ceremony. But it remains to be seen whether Xi is willing to take risks regarding the two countries' politically delicate shared history. In China, being seen as too soft on Japan's early 20th century deeds can be politically dangerous.
Which leads us back to why Xi placed so much importance on visiting the 71st Group Army.
Former President Jiang Zemin is widely known as an anti-Japanese hardliner. His tough stance toward Japan was backed by hawks within the Communist Party and the military. One example of Jiang's influence was regarding the dispute over natural gas fields in the East China Sea.
In 2008, the Japanese and Chinese governments reached an agreement to jointly develop some of the fields in the wake of then Chinese President Hu Jintao's official visit to Japan.
But China failed to implement the agreement after hawks in the party and the military attacked Hu for being too weak on Japan. Jiang is believed to have been one of the masterminds of the campaign.
Xi's sweeping reorganization of the military this spring was partly aimed at reducing Jiang's influence. Of the five army corps that were eliminated, most were those under the influence of "corrupt elements," such as Bo Xilai and Guo Boxiong.
Bo is a former top official of Chongqing, while Guo is a former top uniformed military officer. They were both sentenced to life in prison. Both were also close to Jiang.
Flurry of diplomacy
The diplomatic calendar of 2018 shows a flurry of events in Japan. A Japan-China-South Korea leaders' summit is planned for early in the new year in Japan, followed by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe making an official visit to China.
Those two events will open the path for Xi to make his first official visit to Japan as president.
The Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, in February and China's National People's Congress, its parliament gathering, in March where important government personnel changes will be made, make it hard for the mandarins to set up an exact date for the top-level meetings.
But if Xi were to make significant progress in relations with Japan, he would need the unquestioning support of the military to quell the hardliners. The events surrounding the Xuzhou, Nanjing visit suggest that Xi's tightening his grip on the military could be part of a delicate balancing act with managing relations with Japan.