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What China Means by a ‘Correct View’ on WW2 History

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China Power

What China Means by a ‘Correct View’ on WW2 History

Xi Jinping wants more historical research done — but only on topics that fit the Party’s narrative surrounding the war.

What China Means by a ‘Correct View’ on WW2 History

A Japanese bomber over Chongqing in September 1940.

Credit: Image via Shutterstock

As the August 15 anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II draws near, Chinese President Xi Jinping is determined that China’s role in the war not go unrecognized. On July 30, at a study session of the Chinese Communist Party Politburo focusing on what China calls the “Chinese People’s War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression,” Xi called for stepped-up efforts to preserve and study the history of both Japan’s invasion of China and China’s resistance, saying the country needs a national-level plan to coordinate efforts.

Xi’s vision includes more academic research, more collection and organization of historical records, and more publicity (or propaganda) efforts to shape public discourse. In other words, except to see yet more books and TV shows about the war with Japan.

The end goal, as Xi put it, is both to “let history talk” and “use historical facts to speak.” But in Xi’s formulation, which emphasizes a “correct view of history,” it’s clear that the second function – using historical facts to spread Beijing’s message – is the more important one. That’s why Xi singles out three “important topics” for historical focus: The “great significance” of the War of Resistance; the “important status” of China’s War of Resistance in the World Anti-Fascist War (the Chinese government’s preferred name for World War II); and how the central role of the Chinese Communist Party was “the key to victory” in the War of Resistance.

These are not historical questions to be answered, but rather a preferred Party narrative that Xi wants grounded in historical research. Each of these points will be on display when China celebrates the end of World War II with its new national holiday on September 3, and each deserves separate consideration:

The “Great Significance” of the War of Resistance

The war against Japan undoubtedly played a seminal role in shaping modern China as we know it today, both politically and in terms of national identity. The CCP has ensured the influence of the war remains strong by emphasizing it as a touchstone in national discourse.

In last year’s September 3 commemorations, Xi praised the “great national spirit” of the Chinese people, forged during the crucible of the war, for the eventual victory. In some ways, the War of Resistance – China’s first victory after its “century of humiliation,” during which it repeatedly lost battles to foreign armies – marks the beginning of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” what Xi calls the “China dream.” It remains central to CCP discourse today, and thus its “great significance” must be upheld.

The importance of China’s War of Resistance in the World Anti-Fascist War

But in today’s historical narrative, Beijing wants to emphasize the War of Resistance not only as a unique Chinese experience, but as part of the shared global war against fascism. In this way, the CCP wants to remind Western countries that they fought together alongside Japan – and that Japan, on the side of “fascism,” was associated with Nazi Germany.

This is a twist to long-time narratives about the war, and it centers on China’s desire to win global support for its position that Japan should not be allowed to downplay historical atrocities. It’s also closely tied to China’s modern-day anxieties about defense reforms in Japan, which Beijing tries to paint as the beginnings of re-militarization. It’s also something of a retroactive attempt to play up China’s great power status, by rejecting Western narratives (which often gloss over China’s role) and claiming for China a central contribution to the ultimate Allied victory. With China one of the victorious Allies, the war “resurrected China’s status as a big power in the world,” according to Xi.

The CCP as the “Key to Victory”

With the War of Resistance thus portrayed as a period of “great significance” both domestically and internationally, all that remains is for the CCP to claim credit for that victory. For the Party, this may be the single-most important historical task.

Since the time of Mao Zedong, the CCP has promoted a narrative in which its forces lead the resistance against Japan’s invasion, and thus claim responsibility for the ultimate victory. This narrative was crystallized in the Cultural Revolution-era “model operas.” The most famous example is probably The Legend of the Red Lantern, which tells the story of underground Communist operatives working to defy Japanese occupying forces, but it’s Shajiabang (or Shajia Creek) that exemplifies this historical narrative. In the latter, KMT soldiers have surrendered to the Japanese; both sides are hunting the brave CCP soldiers who are carrying on the resistance.

This is exactly the sort of narrative Xi wants to see more of, but its authenticity is questioned by historians. The CCP role, in fact, was limited to guerilla warfare; the major battles between Chinese and Japanese troops involved KMT forces. Toward the end of the war, CCP forces even deliberately held back from actual fighting with the expressed goal of saving their strength for the coming Chinese civil war. (This is not to say that the KMT was completely committed to fighting the Japanese from the very beginning – KMT leader Chiang Kai-shek only agreed to focus his energies on the war with Japan after being kidnapped by one of his own officers in what became known as the Xi’an Incident).

Meanwhile, politicians in Taiwan, as the heirs of the war-era KMT, insist that their forces were the ones who should get the lion’s share of the credit for China’s eventual victory. Taiwan’s own commemorations of the war are designed partially to combat the CCP’s narrative. “China has to understand that it cannot distort the historical fact of the ROC’s predominant role in the triumph in the Second Sino-Japanese War,” CNA paraphrased a Taiwanese defense ministry official as saying in March.

Though the CCP has been more willing to acknowledge the KMT role recently – KMT veterans will be invited to the parade on September 3, for example, and Xi has called for more collaboration with Taiwan on preserving wartime history – it can’t give itself anything less than center stage in the wartime narrative, given how important the War of Resistance is to China’s national identity. To admit that the CCP was not, as Xi called it, “the backbone of the resistance force,” would threaten the Party’s political legitimacy.