On February 27 of this year, China’s legislature passed a resolution creating two new national observances. “Victory Day” on September 3 would commemorate Japan’s surrender in the “War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression,” China’s name for its fight against Imperial Japan before and during World War II. December 13 was also named a National Memorial Day to commemorate the Nanjing Massacre, which holds a special place in China’s collective memory of wartime atrocities.
Wednesday marked the first-ever observation of China’s new “Victory Day” — and, as always, though the stated focus was on history, commentary on present-day Japan was the real topic.
In honor of Victory Day, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang, and the other five members of the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee (Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zhengsheng, Liu Yunshan, Wang Qishan, and Zhang Gaoli) attended a ceremony at Beijing’s Museum of the War of the Chinese People’s Resistance Against Japanese Aggression. According to Xinhua, the seven most powerful men in China “stood in silent tribute and presented flower baskets to martyrs who sacrificed their lives in the war.” They were joined by veterans of the war, the family members of war dead, and the representatives of “international friends” who assisted in China’s war effort, part of the over 1,500 who attended the ceremony. Afterwards, Xi and company visited an exhibition in the museum on China’s role in the larger global conflict of World War II.
Xi Jinping also addressed a special symposium on the legacy of World War II (which was referred to in his remarks as the World Anti-Fascist War). Xi used the opportunity to reiterate China’s main points on the subject: the war, which was Japan’s fault, was a disaster for all of Asia; Japan has not shown sufficient remorse for or reflection on “its history of aggression”; and China expects “correct treatment” of World War II-era issues to serve as the foundation for future China-Japan relations. In particular, Xi said, China will not allow the denial or distortion of history, nor will it permit a return to militarism. The last point is particularly salient as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seeking to loosen restrictions on Japan’s Self Defense Forces, which China sees as a return to Imperial Japan-style militarism.
But the Victory Day ceremonies were not only a referendum on Japan. They also served as a celebration of the Chinese Communist Party’s role in defeating Japan — and more than that, in saving China from its century of humiliation. Xi Jinping fit the conflict with Japan into a larger narrative, where the “great civilization” of China slipped into irrelevance due to encroachments by foreign powers, particularly Japan. Xi credited the CCP with spearheading the movement to unite all of China’s people in opposition to Japan. To Xi Jinping, the deciding factors in the war were the “great national spirit” of the Chinese people — particularly, their patriotism — and the leadership of the CCP.
The Victory Day ceremony showed how closely the CCP has bound its own legitimacy to the legacy of World War II and thus, implicitly, to modern China-Japan relations. In CCP rhetoric, the “War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression” was both modern China’s greatest tragedy and its greatest triumph. The fight again Japan was the worst humiliation for China, but it was also the last humiliation. In the wake of World War II, particularly with the official founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the CCP claims unbroken progress toward revitalizing China’s historical power and relevance. The path toward fulfilling the “Chinese Dream” began with Victory Day in 1945.
Thus the CCP is particularly vulnerable politically to any signs (whether real or imagined) that Japan is either denying its imperialist history or worse, seeking to return to its imperial “glory days.” The CCP can gain domestic public approval by invoking Japan’s defeat, or by being seen as vigorously defending the post-World War II international order. But this tactic is a double-edged sword — Beijing also risks popular anger if it is seen as not doing enough to safeguard China from modern-day Japanese imperialism. The Global Times, ever a voice for hardline factions, prodded China to “to crush Japan’s will to constrain a rising Beijing” by acquiring “overwhelming advantages over Japan in major areas.” For some, military dominance is the only sort of diplomacy China should use with its eastern neighbor.
This is the tightrope Xi Jinping and his government are walking as they determine whether or not to agree to a bilateral meeting with Shinzo Abe at this November’s APEC summit. Xi’s Victory Day speech provided a stark reminder that he cannot afford to associate with Abe unless Tokyo is willing to provide some sort of concession to Beijing. In the end, the CCP generally prioritizes domestic considerations over broader foreign policy advantages — which does not bode well for a Xi-Abe summit.