China’s Good War11 min read

Jonathan Chatwin reviews China’s Good War by Rana Mitter

By the time Britain’s full Covid lockdown began on March 23 2020, the country’s right-wing press had already spent a week suggesting that this contemporary moment would require the same mythical tenacity that had seen the country through the Second World War. On the 16 March, in a reference doubtless pleasing to a Prime Minister who has written a book on Churchill, a headline in the Daily Mail asked ‘Can Boris Johnson conjure up the spirit of the Blitz?’. Two days later, a comment piece in The Sun, a Murdoch-owned tabloid known for its populist nationalism, instructed the nation: ‘We’re fighting World War V so summon that Blitz spirit and take care of the vulnerable during the coronavirus crisis.’ (V stood for Virus, rather than the Roman numeral for five, the article helpfully explained.)

This contemporary invocation of a war that ended 75 years ago demonstrates something pertinent to Rana Mitter’s new book, China’s Good War: How World War II Is Shaping a New Nationalism. Namely: the powerful, and often politically useful, ways in which stories of war – WWII in particular – can be invoked in the present to provide foundational narratives for nations, political parties and social groups.

This is the second book that Mitter – who is Professor of the History and Politics of Modern China at the University of Oxford – has written on the subject of World War II in China. His first, China’s War with Japan, 1937-1945 (in 2013), offered an historical survey of a conflict that is, as the American title Forgotten Ally suggests, often overlooked in western accounts of the war. This new book deals with the ways in which the story of the war – known in China as the War of Resistance against Japan – has been revived and retold by a government who understand the potential power of a narrative in which, after a ‘century of humiliation’ and successive military defeats, China managed to ‘win’ a war. As Xi Jinping has said: “The Chinese people’s victory in the War of Resistance against Japan was the first complete victory in a recent war where China resisted the invasion of a foreign enemy.” Mitter cites the American political scientist Rogers Smith’s concept of ‘ethically constitutive stories’, narratives that help to form a sense of shared social or national identity. As he writes in his introduction “China has recently constructed such a story of its own modern genealogy, which presents the country not only as powerful, but as just and moral – with the Second World War at the point of origin.”

While Britain’s wartime experience is a well to draw on in times of hardship, China’s war demonstrates its contemporary strength and global importance”

There is a complicating factor to the construction of this narrative, however, which explains why it is only relatively recently – over the last forty years or so – that it has been adopted as part of the official story of modern China. For this so-called ‘complete victory’ of the Chinese people happened not under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), but rather when Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party or Kuomindang (KMT) still ruled China.

It was with Chiang that Allied leaders dealt during the conflict; and it was Chiang who represented China in the post-1945 discussions, not Mao Zedong. In 1949, having lost the civil war which re-ignited after the Japanese surrender, Chiang fled to Taiwan and there established the Republic of China, while in October of that year Mao Zedong stood on the balcony of the Gate of Heavenly Peace in Beijing and declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). For much of the next three decades, discussion of the war was limited to accounts of the CCP’s contribution, which drastically limited the scope of acceptable discourse around the conflict. It is only since the 1980s – prompted partly by a desire to open a conversation with Taiwan – that the War of Resistance has been more openly and fully discussed in mainland China, and that the role played by Nationalist politicians and soldiers has begun to be acknowledged.

The war in China began over two years before Hitler invaded Poland in September of 1939 – though official Chinese government accounts have now, somewhat implausibly, dragged that start date back by another six years to 1931, when Japan invaded Manchuria in China’s north-east. It was in July 1937, however, following the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, that the conflict began in earnest. Japanese forces quickly took Beijing and the nearby port city of Tianjin, then headed south towards Shanghai. After fierce fighting lasting three months, the Japanese army secured Shanghai, and moved onto Nanjing, up the Yangtze River, where over six weeks they killed tens of thousands of civilians, and engaged in the mass rape of Chinese women. The Nationalist government, which had its capital at Nanjing, relocated first to Wuhan, further up the Yangtze, and then to Chongqing, in southwestern Sichuan province, where it would manage to hold out until 1945, despite being subjected to relentless air raids and further periodic campaigns designed to tighten the Japanese grip on the country.

Temporarily setting aside their differences, the warring Nationalists and Communists (from their base in Yan’an in northern China) had come together together in an uneasy alliance known as the ‘United Front’ to fight the Japanese. In 1941, the bombing of Pearl Harbour brought America into the conflict as an ally, though the relationship between Chiang’s government and the US, who offered military and financial support to the Nationalists, was far from straightforward (Mitter, in his first book on the war, dubs it the “poisoned alliance”). Chiang also had to contend with the complications of a collaborationist government established in March 1940 in Nanjing by a former Nationalist leader and rival to Chiang, Wang Jingwei.

Mitter deals with the ways in which the story of the war has been revived and retold by the government”

The war in China was not ‘won’ in any real sense; the end of the conflict came with Japanese surrender to the US in September 1945. Yet, China had held down hundreds of thousands of Japanese troops during the war, and suffered millions of war casualties – over 14 million Chinese people lost their lives during the conflict. Had the Nationalist government surrendered under the intense pressure of 1938, the Japanese forces would likely have taken control of the whole of China and been free to turn their attentions elsewhere.

There was an expectation by Chiang that China’s efforts would be rewarded with greater status in the international community, and a prominent role in deciding the post-war fate of Asia. There was indeed an elevation of China’s position in the global order: Chiang attended the 1943 Cairo summit alongside Roosevelt and Churchill, and after the war, as one of Roosevelt’s ‘Big Four’ nations, China became a founding and permanent member of the UN Security Council. Yet the rapid descent back into civil war, and the Communist victory of 1949 after which diplomatic and economic relations between the US and China effectively ceased, meant that China’s new international status was never solidified. In the contemporary Chinese account, the country never fully received the reward or acknowledgment it deserved for its role in World War II. Speaking in 2015, President Xi took up this theme, encouraging Chinese and international scholars to focus more closely on the story of the conflict:

“We must encourage international society accurately to recognize the Chinese people’s War of Resistance position and role in the world anti-fascist war. We must strengthen the international interchange of research on the War of Resistance. And we must encourage the mutual sharing across the Taiwan Straits of scholarly materials and jointly written books.”

China’s Good War tackles the scholarly, popular and political representations of the war in mainland China, examining the different ways the story of the conflict has been told through written history, memoir, museum curation, television series, film and even social media. In doing so, Mitter illuminates the fraught and complex manner in which historical memory functions in modern China.

Though politically useful, the acceptable historiographical limits of this particular period remain ill-defined and subject to change. In June 2019, for example, the movie The Eight Hundred was scheduled to open at the Shanghai Film Festival. A big-budget Chinese production, shot in IMAX, it told the well-known story of 800 Nationalist soldiers who held out against the Japanese in a waterfront warehouse in Shanghai in 1937. However, shortly before the festival kicked off, and without explanation, it was pulled as the festival opener, whilst its domestic release was cancelled altogether. Criticism of the film by a group called the Chinese Red Culture Association – who argued that it painted the Nationalist forces in too positive a light – seems to have been behind its sudden suppression, despite the movie having already been cleared by official censors. (In early August 2020, it was announced that the film would finally see domestic release: it remains to be seen whether changes have been made to the original cut). As Mitter observes: “The uneasy balance between allowing a more inclusive history and trying not to damage the mythos of the CCP’s history … continues.”

Getting the balance right is problematic, but it is clear that representations of China’s wartime sacrifices, and of its role in the creation of the post-1945 world order, will continue to proliferate. Aimed at both domestic and international audiences, they serve a number of political aims. For the Chinese people themselves, the nation’s wartime experience can be packaged as a narrative which helps to shore up a sense of nationalistic pride, marking the beginning of the end of the so-called ‘century of humiliation’, and providing a periodically useful enemy in Japan. It also supports the CCP’s broader desire to position itself in the modern age, as Mitter writes, “as a guarantor of international order with a strong sense of pride in its achievement of nationhood, and as guardian of an authoritarian domestic social contract that stresses collective economic wellbeing over individual rights.”

It is only since the 1980s that the role played by the Nationalists in WWII has begun to be acknowledged”

In the CCP’s eyes, the Allied negotiations – both during the war and also immediately after – helped to bolster China’s maritime and territorial claims of the time in Asia, in particular in the South China Sea. This led to, as Mitter puts it, a “Schrödinger-like interpretation of Chiang Kai-shek’s historical status in the postwar: China has to maintain that the Nationalist wartime and postwar claims between 1945 and 1949 are legitimate, but that the Communist defeat of the Nationalist regime in 1949 was also justified.”

That these political aims encourage the (limited) sharing of stories from this era has also inspired film-makers, writers and members of the public to explore the history in more diverse and interesting ways. Mitter writes at length on how memories of the war in Chongqing – the temporary Nationalist capital in southwest Sichuan province – have been more openly shared since the 1980s. While in other parts of China, the CCP’s involvement in the conflict can be foregrounded, in Chongqing the stories naturally centre around the Nationalist experience. For years, this meant that the Sichuanese contribution to the war effort had to be downplayed; now it can be more openly celebrated.

On May 8 2020, though Britain remained in Covid lockdown, there were socially-distanced street parties to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe (VE) day, marking the end of the Second World War in Europe after the German surrender. The front page of the  Daily Express read: “Tonight the nation will unite with Dame Vera Lynn in a rousing rendition of We’ll Meet Again for those who served this country so well. In these dark times the hard-fought freedoms for us all have never been so valued.”

China’s official celebrations of the 75th anniversary did not come until September, and were more muted due to the Covid pandemic. In September 2015, however, a grand military parade was held along Chang’an Avenue, the central thoroughfare of Beijing, to mark the 70th anniversary. Such parades are normally reserved for the ‘birthday’ of New China, October 1st, and the occasion was the most overt and public acknowledgement of the changed status of China’s war experience.

The contrast with nostalgic celebrations in Britain and other western allied nations is acute. While Britain’s wartime experience is a well to draw on in times of hardship – a lost, mythical era of tenacity, military might and stiff upper lip – China’s war is, in this official framing, a source of nationalist pride that demonstrates its contemporary strength and global importance. The sight of 12,000 Chinese troops marching in perfect synchronicity, accompanied by tanks and missile launchers, was the most visually arresting image of the parade, one intended to glorify the New China of the CCP. Yet Mitter notes the significance of a moment midway through the parade “when several elderly men were presented to [Xi Jinping]. These men, all over ninety years old, had fought in the war against Japan in both the Communist and Nationalist armies. Finally, in front of China’s president and secretary-general of the party, and with all of China watching on television, the contribution of the Nationalists to winning the war was acknowledged in the most prominent manner possible.” ∎

Rana Mitter, China’s Good War: How World War II Is Shaping a New Nationalism (HUP, September 2020).