The Ministry of Education in China recently mandated that, starting in the spring semester of 2017, all history textbooks in China should adopt the phrase “the 14-year Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression” to describe the Sino-Japanese conflict of the 1930s and 1940s, as opposed to the old phrase “the eight-year Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression.” The revision received contrasting responses domestically and internationally. Within China, historians applauded the move because “the part of history from 1931 to 1937, of people and garrison soldiers in Northeast China fighting against Japanese aggressors had been neglected for a long time”; outside China it was seen as a deliberate act of Chinese government fanning nationalism.
The revision shifted the starting point of the conflict from a battle on July 7, 1937 at the Marco Polo Bridge near Beijing to the Mukden Incident on September 18, 1931, which preceded the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. Though 1937 marked the beginning of the Nationalist Party’s resolve to engage in the Anti-Japanese War, the Communist Party issued a statement as early as 1931 to rally the Chinese people to resist the Japanese invasion. Historians in China have been saying for years that the contribution of Northeast Anti-Japanese United Army led by the Communist Party between 1931 and 1937 must be acknowledged.
Though the officially stated rationale for revising history textbooks is to “reflect historical truth,” on many occasions the Chinese government has revealed the greater interests behind such moves. One motive is to highlight the contribution of the Communist Party, not the Nationalist Party, in fighting the Japanese. Another is to draw the world’s attention to China’s sacrifice in fighting against fascist forces and China’s role in helping Allied forces achieve victory in World War II.
Positioning the Communist Party at the center of China’s victory in the Second Sino-Japanese War is crucial to the legitimacy of the party. Historians have been arguing for years that the Nationalist Party’s contributions outweighed the Communist Party’s and the danger, in the eyes of the Communist Party, is that this view is increasingly popular among the Chinese. The group of young people, active on social media, self-identifying as “Fans of the Nationalists” embodies the “dangerous ideology of historical nihilism” that the Communist Party is trying to combat. From the shuttering of the liberal history magazine Yanhuang Chunqiu, to the Chinese professor recently sacked after criticizing Mao Zedong online, the history textbook revision is a continuation of the government’s attempt to redress this “historical nihilism”and defend its historical reputation.
Moreover, China’s revision of the Second Sino-Japanese War narrative should be placed within the longer time frame of China’s attempt to craft its image as a “responsible major power” and the larger context of the world’s concern over the rise of China. As early as August 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping, speaking at the 25th Study Group of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee, declared that “China needs to have an in-depth study on the Sino-Japanese War so as to reflect the leadership role of the Communist Party in the war against the Japanese and the significance of China’s contribution in the global war against fascism.”
On September 3, 2015, in his speech at China’s Victory Day parade, Xi referred to the war as 14 years long, underlining the fact that China was the first to take up arms against fascism among the Allied forces. Refreshing the world’s memory of China as an indispensable ally in World War II has tremendous significance to the present administration, which is haunted by China’s current image as an aggressor toward neighboring countries and a revisionist power in the international system. Making the world aware of the historic role of China in maintaining world peace could potentially change how the world views China today.
Thus, China moving back the Sino-Japanese War’s start date by six years is less intended to fan nationalism domestically than it is meant to alleviate fear over China’s rise internationally. Indeed, Chinese netizens’ response is telling of the fact that the nationalistic fervor of ultra-nationalists runs higher than that of the government. Utopia, a website famous for its Maoist-leaning ideology, argues that Japanese aggression should actually be traced back to as early as the 1894 Sino-Japanese War. Quite a significant number of netizens on the social media platform Weibo have called for placing the starting point of the Japanese invasion in the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). Many state openly that the longer the Sino-Japanese War is counted, the better. The heated discussion reveals a dangerous tendency in China — netizens have a tremendous sense of self-righteousness and belief in their version of historical truth.
Fanning the already fervent nationalism of the Chinese people would not serve the Chinese government well. At a time where relations with South Korea are at a low point over the deployment of a U.S. missile defense system, China is not interested in also antagonizing its relations with Japan. Warming relations on a people-to-people level between China and Japan provide evidence. In recent months, with Japan relaxing its visa requirement for Chinese tourists, the number of Chinese going to Japan has reached a new high. And the Japanese anime film Your Name became a blockbuster hit in China at the end of 2016.
The history textbook revision, through reaffirming the leadership role of the Communist Party in the Sino-Japanese War and WWII, is conducive to legitimacy-building within China, and image-building outside China. But polices always have unintended consequences. China’s revision of history again provoked the right-wing faction in Japan to point fingers at China for “fabricating history” — a charge that both sides level at each other often. And far from improving China’s image in the international community, instead now the world is again worried that the younger generation of Chinese will bear a greater sense of victimhood.
It is true that China has been a forgotten ally in World War II history, but China still has a long way to go before it is viewed as a responsible major power.
Jing Yu is a graduate student in the Department of International Relations at New York University.