On October 19, 1950, the Chinese People’s Volunteer (CPV) Army moved into North Korea to counter the U.S.-led forces marching toward the Chinese border.
Seventy years later, President Xi Jinping attended an exhibit on China’s involvement in the Korean War, devoted to (in the words of Xinhua, the state news agency), “the heroic and fearless spirit of the CPV soldiers, the patriotism of the Chinese people and the firm determination of the Chinese nation to defy hegemony and safeguard peace.”
Notably, Xi was joined by the other six members of the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee, the top echelon of political power in China, as well as by Vice President Wang Qishan, a former PBSC member.
In remarks at the exhibit, Xi said, “The victory in the War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea was a victory of justice, a victory of peace and a victory of the people.” He added that the spirit forged during the war “will inspire the Chinese people and the Chinese nation to overcome all difficulties and obstacles, and prevail over all enemies.”
Xi did not specifically mention what “enemies” China might be facing today, instead focusing on the figurative battle for the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” But the subtext was obvious from the literal backdrop to his remarks. The United States, that past enemy, looms large as a present villain. It’s noteworthy that, amid the worst downturn in U.S.-China relations since at least 1989, and arguably since ties were established in 1979, Xi chose to highlight the one actual war between the two sides.
As Joe Renouard and Woyu Liu noted in an earlier article for The Diplomat, in China’s official narrative the Korea conflict “was not only a just war, but also a vital test for the new PRC and, ultimately, a ‘victory’ against a technologically superior foe.” More specifically, “In China today, the Korean War stands as a universally understood symbol of national unity against American belligerence.” That gives the Korean War a clear resonance for the current moment.
Xi framed China’s “historic decision” to enter the Korean War on North Korea’s side as an effort to “safeguard peace and resist aggression.” That framing is not new, although it conveniently avoids the fact that North Korea sparked the war by invading the South. China’s name for the conflict, after all, is the War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea. But the idea of “safeguarding peace and resisting aggression” also meshes well with China’s current narrative that it is the true defender of the international order, multilateral cooperation, and peace against the disruptive influence of the United States.
China began ramping up Korean War propaganda as early as 2018, as the Trump administration began to levy sanctions on Chinese imports. Even with that background in mind, the presence of the eight most powerful men in China at the exhibit on October 19 was a deeply significant political signal of the importance China’s leaders place on resurrecting the memory of the conflict.
As Carl Minzer, professor at Fordham University and an expert on Chinese governance, noted on Twitter, Xi’s visit is likely to be the beginning, rather than the end, of a new spate of Chinese media coverage focusing on the last time the U.S. and China fought against each other in a war. “You’ve now got top-level Party imprimatur for front page news & TV stories like this … with the formal Chinese name for the Korean War (抗美援朝战争) [literally -War to Resist American Aggression and Aid Korea] repeated over and over,” Minzer wrote, pointing to the October 20 People’s Daily spread on Xi’s visit.
Indeed, according to Xinhua, “Xi demanded in-depth study and publicity of the heroic deeds and revolutionary spirit of the CPV army.” There is now an official call for China’s academics and media outlets to turn their focus to the War to Resist American Aggression, even as the Trump administration continues its campaign against the CCP.