New narrative in China's WWII story

The grand parade in Beijing last Thursday to commemorate the end of World War II in China highlighted two contradictory narratives, both immensely important for understanding the country's future path.

The first story is about China's newfound strength. In the past two decades of rapid economic growth, China's military budget has increased sharply - last year by more than 12 per cent. By publicly displaying its latest military hardware, China's leadership has made it clear that it will never again allow the country to suffer as it did when Japan invaded in 1937 during the Second Sino-Japanese War.

This message may not go down well with China's neighbours, however. After all, many of them are already anxious about China's beefed-up military capacity, which they view from the perspective of its far-reaching territorial and maritime claims in the region.

Chinese President Xi Jinping did announce a reduction in the size of the military by 300,000 troops in his pre-parade speech, perhaps to reassure observers about China's peaceful intentions in the region, and as a counterpoint to the display of missiles and tanks. His announcement could also be seen as a skilful way to announce a major budget cut - an economic measure sweetened by the patriotic symbolism of a parade celebrating the country's military might.

But China's neighbours are unlikely to be assuaged by Mr Xi's announcement. On the contrary, they are likely to view the cuts as just the start of a new phase of China's military modernisation, characterised by a greater reliance on high technology and less on a large standing army.

China is keen to stress its role as one of the key allies in the fight against fascism and imperialism in WWII, and increasingly regards Western ignorance of its wartime role as unacceptable. But ignorance in the West of China's wartime sacrifices - 14 million dead - and of its major contribution in holding down more than half a million Japanese troops also reflects the partisan history of the war that was taught in China itself. 

And yet the dominant narrative about military strength should not obscure the more subtle but crucial changes in China. In newspaper editorials and domestic conferences over the past few weeks and months, new phrases have been used repeatedly to define the country's war experience. China is described as "the major battlefield of World War II in the East" (by implication downgrading the Pacific Theatre, where the US was dominant), and August 1945 has become "the first occasion when China won a war completely against a foreign enemy".

The ground has been set to install a new narrative about WWII as a central part of Chinese national identity. To be sure, there are still holes in this narrative. During his speech at the parade, Mr Xi did not mention the non-communist fighters who fought the Japanese.

Yet, in an unprecedented move, soldiers who fought with Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist (Kuomintang) forces were present at the event.

Indeed, the main symbol of China's wartime past during the parade was the poignant participation of a small number of Chinese WWII veterans. These men, from 90 to 102 years old, are survivors of battles fought by both the Nationalist and communist armies. Just a decade ago, it would have been hard to imagine that Kuomintang veterans, once led by Mao Zedong's great enemy, could have been given an honoured place in an event organised by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Their presence indicates that behind the parade's martial rhetoric and symbolism, a broader and more complex story of China's wartime experience is emerging.

China is keen to stress its role as one of the key allies in the fight against fascism and imperialism in WWII, and increasingly regards Western ignorance of its wartime role as unacceptable. But ignorance in the West of China's wartime sacrifices - 14 million dead - and of its major contribution in holding down more than half a million Japanese troops also reflects the partisan history of the war that was taught in China itself.

Under Mao's rule, the only acceptable narrative was that the CCP led the resistance against Japan. Foreign assistance - including the major role played by the United States in wartime China - had no place in this story. Nor did the Kuomintang government, which had millions of men fighting the Japanese.

But the story of China in WWII was not confined to the rise of communism. Some 80 million or more Chinese became refugees, many of them fleeing to the interior, which was still controlled by Chiang's government. In the wartime capital of Chongqing in the south-west, thousands were killed in regular Japanese air raids, which reduced the city to ruins.

Meanwhile, more than two million Chinese served in the Nationalist armies that resisted the Japanese invasion. Yet, after 1949, this story disappeared in Mao's China. It was politically impossible to speak of Chiang's defeated government, which moved to Taiwan, in anything other than negative terms.

Although Mr Xi did not explicitly mention the Nationalist veterans' role in his parade speech, they were given an honoured place - a move driven not by a desire to set the historical record straight, but by shrewd political calculus.

If the war is to become part of China's national identity, the accepted narrative will have to be more accommodating of the memories of all those who fought and suffered, not just the communists.

By implication, this may allow a widening of what constitutes officially permitted history in China, and an acknowledgement that the country's turbulent 20th century was shaped by a variety of actors - communists, Nationalists, liberals, democrats and all manner of artists, thinkers and writers.

Ironically, the war with Japan - China's moment of greatest peril from a foreign threat - was also one of the country's liveliest periods of democratic political participation. It would be impressive if today's more inclusive tribute to China's past became a signal of incipient pluralism in China's present.

PROJECT SYNDICATE

• Rana Mitter is director of the China Centre at Oxford University and author of China's War With Japan, 1937-1945: The Struggle For Survival (US title: Forgotten Ally).

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 09, 2015, with the headline 'New narrative in China's WWII story'. Print Edition | Subscribe