Trans-Pacific View

Memory and History: Forging China’s Identity

Insight from Rana Mitter

By Mercy A. Kuo and Angelica O. Tang for
Memory and History: Forging China’s Identity
Credit: Voice of America

The Rebalance authors Mercy Kuo and Angie Tang regularly engage subject-matter experts, policy practitioners and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into the U.S. rebalance to Asia. This conversation with Dr. Rana Mitter – Deutsche Bank Director of the University China Centre and Professor of History and Modern Politics of China and Fellow of St. Cross College at Oxford University; author and editor of numerous publications, including Forgotten Ally: China’s War with Japan (1937-45), Modern China: A Very Short Introduction, and Ruptured Histories: War and Memory in Post-Cold War Asia is the 29th in “The Rebalance Insight Series.”

Explain the correlation between historical memory and identity formation in China’s evolution as a 21st century global power.

History is becoming more, not less important as China reshapes its identity in the present day. The military parade in Tiananmen Square on September 3, 2015 had at its heart not just tanks and troops, but a handful of veterans, aged between 90 and 102, who had served in the War of Resistance against Japan from 1937 to 1945. Half of the veterans were from the Communist armies under Mao, and half from the Nationalists under China’s then ruler, Chiang Kai-shek. This was an immensely important piece of symbolism, as it showed that China had moved away from the division of the civil war, when Nationalists and Communists and fought against one another, and instead was stressing its shared history of wartime resistance against invasion. This traumatic experience of war, in which 14 million Chinese died, 100 million became refugees, and 500,000 Japanese troops were held down in China’s territory, has now become a prime source of legitimacy for Beijing. Just as the U.S. used its wartime victory to plant what has become a permanent presence in Asia, some argue, so China should now use its own record of wartime sacrifice to demand territorial and jurisdictional influence in Asia also. There is a new interest in events such as the Cairo Conference of 1943 and the Potsdam Declaration of 1945, as China seeks legitimacy in its wartime alliances for its regional claims today.

A recent Pew Research survey of Asia-Pacific countries’ perceptions of their regional neighbors indicates Japan is viewed most favorably, except in China and South Korea. How can China reconcile its international image with historical grievances and regional friction?

The Chinese Communist Party has not yet managed to create a narrative which enables it to share its view of wartime history with much of the Asia-Pacific region. China and South Korea suffered horrifically under wartime occupation by Japan, and this experience has shaped their relationship with postwar Japan. However, the Chinese elites who shape the political uses of history have not always understood that the Japanese role elsewhere in the region is sometimes understood differently. For example, Jose P. Laurel, who was the collaborationist president of Philippines under wartime occupation, has been largely rehabilitated. Subhas Chandra Bose, whose Indian National Army fought with the Japanese, is still regarded as a national hero in India and is particularly feted in his hometown of Calcutta. Therefore, simply trying to stir up fear of Japan, based on memories of wartime atrocities, is not sufficient as a strategy to boost China’s image. Instead, China needs to think about what the post-war experience meant in Asia. In large part, it was a period of consolidation of nation-states. By supporting the development of a region of strong, cooperative neighbors, China would be better able to create a regional order that would serve its interests in peace and stability.

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How would you assess President Xi Jinping’s leadership style in comparison to his predecessors since Mao Zedong and the effectiveness of Xi’s efforts to bolster China’s influence in regional and global affairs?

Xi Jinping has a very different style from his predecessor. He has made no secret of his conviction that China needs a fuxing, or renaissance, and that China’s growing status in the region and the world should be a central part of that process. At home, his desire to consolidate behind that goal has led to a distinctly chillier atmosphere in terms of freedoms: media, academia and the professions are all much more restrained than before 2012. The anti-corruption campaign has proved popular, but it has also meant that many feel that they do not want to take action in case their activities come back to haunt them later. In foreign affairs, the establishment of the “One Belt One Road” policy is an ambitious one, with its aims of creating a new Chinese-dominated trade zone between southeast Europe and southeast Asia. But the details have yet to be disclosed. China has shown clearly that it wants to play a greater role in the world; but it has still got a great deal of work to do to articulate that vision in a form that its neighbors fully accept and understand.

What is the main impact of Taiwan’s recent elections on cross-strait relations and on identity politics in Taiwan?

The election of Tsai Ing-wen was one of the most widely predicted electoral results in recent history. Tsai is a pragmatic and thoughtful politician whose commitment to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) nonetheless seems unlikely to lead to extravagant statements about independence. Many aspects of the cross-straits relationship have been genuinely strengthened in recent years, and few would want (for instance) to end direct air links between Taiwan and the mainland. Nonetheless, it is clear that Taiwan does feel that it has a clear and well-defined identity that has been bolstered by the democratic support for the DPP. Many of the tropes that tied its Nationalist elite to China – for instance, shared memory of war against the Japanese – have less traction with the younger generation today. China has stressed its traditional line that any move toward independence by Taiwan would lead to radical action from China, possibly including military intervention. But the real challenge for China is to work out how to achieve a lasting settlement across the Straits. Beijing knows that an attack on a liberal, democratic society in Taiwan would look appalling from the point of view of most of the (now democratic) region and the wider world, as well as making a mockery of Beijing’s claims to “brotherhood” with the island. In practice, it seems most likely that the next few years will be marked by fierce rhetoric on both sides but with little real change in the status quo.

What are the top three challenges facing the next U.S. president in forging a new stage in U.S.-China relations?  

China’s rise will be a top-tier issue for the new president. She or he will have to take account of the following issues:

–       Helping to bring China safely into the global financial system. The past few weeks have shown that Beijing’s desire to make the yuan a convertible currency has led to a journey along a much rockier path than many anticipated. China and the U.S. need to work together on the revaluation of the RMB rather than throwing accusations at one another.

–       Keeping U.S. allies in East Asia reassured while adjusting to China’s rise in the region. As long as democratic societies – Taiwan, the Republic of Korea, and Japan among them – choose U.S. support in the region, it is quite legitimate for Washington to retain a significant regional role – and it is likely to do just this. But the U.S. will have to engage with Beijing’s desire to have greater influence in the region – perhaps by stressing that alliances with the U.S. actually lead to more regional stability than a competitive arms race between individual actors.

–       Establishing a good personal rapport with China’s leaders. There is still not sufficient high-level understanding between American and China’s highest elites, and seeking to create more bridges between them is a key task. It is easier to manage disagreement with a rival whom you know and respect.

Mercy A. Kuo is an advisory board member of CHINADebate and was previously director of the Southeast Asia Studies and Strategic Asia Programs at the National Bureau of Asian Research. Angie O. Tang is Senior Advisor of Asia Value Advisors, a leading venture philanthropy advisory firm based in Hong Kong.