In its blunt efforts to rebalance U.S.-China trade disparities with punitive tariffs, the Trump administration has proved (wittingly or unwittingly) adept at playing in to deep-seated Chinese suspicions. Following the latest collapse in trade negotiations, Trump’s epithets toward China and his threats to further expand U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods have provoked a Chinese government response that risks pushing this war of words to new heights. With a more literal interpretation of the “war” in trade war, Chinese state media has reprised the Korean War-era “Resist America, Aid Korea” campaign (1950-53) that called upon the Chinese people to wage a protracted struggle against U.S. imperialism. Given the history of this decidedly anti-American campaign, the resurrection of Resist America, Aid Korea imagery and rhetoric could presage a disconcerting relapse into a propaganda-fueled existential politics that risks reimagining U.S.-China antagonism into existence.
With one of its latest and most overt symbolic salvos toward the United States, the Chinese government last month sparked concern with its decision to air a series of classic Mao-era Korean War films. Perhaps most notable was the showing of the 1956 film The Battle on Shangganling Mountain, which heralds the triumphs of the Chinese military as it destroys evil American imperialists who have invaded the Korean Peninsula. The film is replete with imagery of depraved American troops with prosthetically enlarged noses who ultimately succumb to the strength, bravery, and perseverance of Chinese soldiers. The movie’s broadcast coincided with an influx of editorials and retrospectives in official state media that ask the Chinese people to reinvigorate the “Spirit of Shangganling.” As a May 19 Global Times editorial made clear, “The trade war with the U.S. at the moment reminds Chinese of military struggles between China and the U.S. during the Korean War.”
The timely reappearance of Resist America, Aid Korea propaganda comes as one of the latest attempts by the Xi government to redirect rising economic angst within China by provoking long-simmering populist antipathy toward the United States. In its resurrection of Korean War analogies, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has again shown its willingness to stoke Chinese patriotic sentiments by promoting a revisionist account of the conflict and drawing upon its well-trodden anti-American propagandistic tropes. The recent warning against U.S. travel for fear of “shootings, robberies, and thefts happening frequently” as well as accusations that anti-extradition protests in Hong Kong have been fueled by a “conspiracy with the West” indicate the Xi government’s current disposition to push back against U.S. trade provocations by leaning heavily into anti-American suspicions.
Yet looming larger over these issues of (mis)representation is a broader shift in CCP propaganda that posits contemporary global politics within nostalgic imaginings of the early Cold War. With striking parallels to its inception in the early 1950s, the contemporary reprise of the Resist America, Aid Korea campaign now appears to more purposefully frame China’s troubles within an epochal struggle against U.S. expansionism. Though Chinese aggrievement at the hands of the United States has remained a remarkably robust image within Communist Party propaganda over the past 70 years, the return of American imperialism as the perceived chief antagonist to the People’s Republic reintroduces a more vitriolic conception Chinese nationalism that is intimately tied to anti-American sentiment.
Unveiled to the Chinese public in October 1950, the original “Resist America, Aid Korea” movement was sold as the patriotic obligation of the nascent People’s Republic of China to aid its North Korean comrades in the face of provocative U.S. aggression. Yet far more than wartime agitprop that demonized a long-nosed American enemy, the campaign was used by Party officials as a critical pedagogical tool to give meaning and praxis to Mao’s anti-American imperialist credos in the first years of post-1949 CCP rule. Integrated into virtually all aspects of social and political life between 1950 and 1953, Resist America, Aid Korea propaganda wedded state dogmas of patriotic nationalism to the perpetual struggle against American imperialism. As a war mobilization tool, the campaign pushed the Chinese people to sacrifice and increase their production to aid Chinese soldiers defending against American invasion. As an educational effort, the Chinese citizenry was directed to pledge its devotion in equal parts to the CCP and to the anti-American struggle. Within the orthodoxies of the campaign, to be a patriotic member of the Chinese nation was to defend against U.S. advances.
In the contemporary reprise of Resist America, Aid Korea propaganda, the CCP encourages the rekindling of the “Spirit of Shangganling” to remember China’s triumphs against American provocation. Near carbon copies of Resist America, Aid Korea propaganda from the 1950s, old propaganda posters, Korean War exhibitions, CCTV testimonials from Korean War veterans, and People’s Daily editorials that recount the travails of fighting against the Americans are now shared electronically and spread across China’s digital landscape. Such imagery posits clear parallels between contemporary U.S.-China tensions and patriotic remembrances of Korean War victories.
The symbolism of this Korean War nostalgia is perhaps most potent, however, in its dog whistle conjuring of the underlying anti-American imperialism that served as the backbone of the campaign. Remembrances of Resist America, Aid Korea propaganda evoke imagery that paints the United States as the central antagonist in China’s long “Century of Humiliation.” In a retrospective on the “Battle for Shangganling Mountain” posted on the People’s Daily website, for instance, the war is remembered as one of “justice” in the face of “U.S. attempts to conquer the world.” In this reimagining, the Korean War still serves as ostensible proof of the longstanding American interest to encroach upon or circumvent Chinese interests or to literally invade China’s allies and threaten its national space. Movie posters of classic Cold War films now serve as implicit symbols of Chinese resilience in the face of American attacks.
Within these memories, Chinese patriotism is re-encoded with a committed anti-American imperialism that is more prone to view any U.S. action toward China as part of a larger project to thwart China’s rise. Perceived American slights against the Chinese state are rechanneled as grave threats to the Chinese people themselves. As one patriotic blogger recently posted, “On the surface, this is a trade war. However, it is actually a larger battle to protect the life and death of new China.”
Amidst such optics, the Trump administration’s China policies appear more provocative than ever. Efforts to stymie Chinese telecom giant Huawei, criticisms of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and — perhaps most provocatively — open flirtations with the notion of Taiwanese independence can all be more easily interpreted as a resurgence of American attempts to contain China.
There is little doubt that Chinese propaganda officials are well-aware of the subtleties and implications of their evocative reincarnation of the Resist America, Aid Korea campaign. Yet in its attempt to once again fan anti-American skepticism and to elide its own responsibilities for China’s contemporary economic and geopolitical quandaries, the Xi government risks enhancing a role of perceived American aggrievement that the Trump administration appears all too willing to play.
Andrew Kuech is a Ph.D. Candidate in Politics and Historical Studies at the New School for Social Research in NYC. His work focuses upon the political uses of imagery of the U.S. in Chinese Cold War propaganda campaigns.