Who Controls the Past Controls the Future8 min read

Contested Memories of WWII on the Chinese Internet – Johanna Costigan

Historical narratives are strictly controlled in contemporary China. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s definitive history of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, included in its 1981 ‘Resolution on certain questions in the history of our party since the founding of the PRC’, placed blame for the era’s chaotic violence squarely on the Gang of Four and Chairman Mao. By centering the blame on a few individuals, the Party let countless complicit citizens off the hook, freeing them to further the national pursuit of opening and reform.

In the decades following Mao’s death, the CCP refined its methods of narrative control. Accounts of the Tiananmen massacre were swiftly silenced; dissenters fled the country, went to jail, or endured worse fates. Memories of what happened in 1989 were never institutionalized. Children attended kindergarten through college without learning of the actions the Party took to repress the generation of students who came before them – their parents and their parents’ peers.

More recently, as the increasingly technocratic Party-state has advanced its surveillance and repression mechanisms, it has invested time and resources into achieving collective memory restraint. When the Covid outbreak first struck China, the nation’s speech control apparatus refrained from taking aggressive action as officials got their story straight. Once they did, their story became indisputable. The Party stringently recast the Covid outbreak, corralling public discourse away from the blunders of local officials and toward the allegedly unpatriotic actions of documentarians such as Fang Fang, author of Wuhan Diary.

This sudden and decisive narrative push signalled that individuals should not speak out (virtually or otherwise) about their pandemic experiences unless they conform with the new, clear, official depiction. Similarly, authorities in Hong Kong are actively working to recharacterize the city’s protests in a way that suits its political aims, demonstrating that even a dissenting population will not deter the Party from retroactively deciding how sensitive events unfolded.

The Party’s focus on controlling historical narratives pays particular attention to chapters that inform national identity. From the Party’s perspective, there is an unequivocally correct version of its own path to national leadership. And the official narrative of the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1937-1945) – China’s World War II – is an essential chapter in the Party’s attempt to cultivate and define Chinese identity through history.

Even a dissenting population will not deter the Party from retroactively deciding how sensitive events unfolded”

Presentations of World War II in Chinese school curricula, popular culture and museums are controlled by the government. They emphasize the CCP’s bitter revolutionary struggle for power and largely downplay the Kuomintang (KMT)’s role in coordinating China’s military defense. The KMT is described as a tertiary – if helpful – entity in the broader story of national humiliation and suffering at the hands of the Japanese. The nature of those presentations, however, has proven malleable: they have shifted in accordance with the PRC’s changing domestic and international political aims. Rana Mitter’s new book on the domestic politics of Chinese war memory also emphasizes how China’s role in World War II has shaped its participation in the postwar order, as well as how state efforts to alter war memory can justify maneuvers that are geopolitically beneficial to China.

The short time between the end of the Pacific war (between the Allies and Japan) and China’s civil war (between the Communists and the Nationalists) influenced the degree to which WWII was discussed in Maoist China. Depictions of Chiang Kai-shek’s valorous rebuff of the Japanese army would not have been politically beneficial to Mao Zedong. Under Deng Xiaoping, when market reform and economic development became the government’s priorities, wartime atrocities committed by the Japanese were further buried in order to secure Japan’s financial investment in the new Chinese economy.

Xi Jinping has recently emphasized that “correct” history is a fundamental pillar of legitimacy for the CCP. This September, Xi incorporated the history issue into the ‘five never allows’ policy, which he announced in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of Japan’s surrender. The first of the five ‘never allows’ is: “The Chinese people will never allow any individual or any force to distort the history of the [CCP] or smear the Party’s nature and mission.” For Xi, expanding historical narratives amounts to “smearing” the Party.

The third ‘never allow’ appeared to be a direct response to Mike Pompeo’s attempt to distinguish between the Chinese people and the Party that leads them: “The Chinese people will never allow any individual or any force to separate the [CCP] from the Chinese people or counterpose the Party to the Chinese people.” In this view, the Party’s historical narrative is China’s historical narrative.

But many Chinese netizens are not satisfied with that framework. Internet users not only show skepticism of the official narrative presented at museums, but also demonstrate an active interest in researching neglected chapters of war history. Their skepticism toward the official narrative expands societal discourse on the war beyond state-sanctioned boundaries, representing the development of a grassroots collective memory surrounding a chapter in China’s history that is strongly related to national identity.

The Party’s historical narrative is presented as China’s historical narrative”

Attempts to broaden war narratives have been particularly resonant on Douban, a social media platform created for book and movie reviews but also known for its liberal user base and rich discussion of controversial subjects. While Douban users refrain from explicitly criticizing the Party, their decision to think and write about alternative historical narratives is an oppositional act in its own right. Traversing the nebulous margins of tolerated discourse is always a risky undertaking.

One commenter, Lan (all names have been anonymized), is a young professional from Beijing who visited a war memorial during a business trip to Chongqing. In response to a section of wall text which criticizes the Nationalist Party’s (KMT) nepotism during the war, she wrote: “When you think about the nepotism that exists in the government today, that’s like the pot calling the kettle black.”

Ma, who has thousands of followers and is semi-Douban-famous, directly confronts CCP hypocrisy regarding war memory. He describes official war memory in China as it is represented in education and popular culture as too simplistic and “full of praise and hatred, heroes and demons, saviors and reactionaries.” He writes that Taiwanese war memory, showcased at the Taiwanese war memorial he visited while on holiday there, is based more on preserving the memory of individuals who lived through the war. It “supports the culture and tradition of the island.” 

Other users criticize the CCP on the grounds that it does too little to defend China’s national pride. A user named Ran conducted an interview with the plainly nationalist war relic collector Guan Shenkai. In the interview, Guan pointed out that Japanese right-wing politicians and supporters continue to deny the fact that wartime atrocities took place. As such, China is obligated to react aggressively, otherwise national war memory will disintegrate: “It is because of the lack of hatred in my country that we are not alert and not striving hard to remember history,” he said. He linked war memory to national identity, stating: “I sounded an alarm to alert any citizen; our nation can no longer be ignorant, and can no longer continue to pursue an outlook that is, to an extent, letting down the Chinese nation and nationality.”

Others criticize the CCP for doing too little to defend China’s national pride”

Some Douban users directly address the question of how memory is constructed, and the role individuals can and should play in that process. One user named Xie acknowledged the Party’s consistent and intensive efforts to obfuscate war history, noting his school textbook included the number of people who died during the war, but only from visiting the museum did he begin to understand the “meaning behind the number.” He makes the case that since the state will always prioritize its own interests over an inclusive history, it is individuals’ responsibility to seek out historical narratives. Otherwise, he asks, “are we choosing to forget?” 

Likewise, a user named Yan emphasizes the perspective of veterans, whom she spoke with at an event held at the Nanjing memorial. Throughout the post, she refers at different points to “official memory,” “memory” and “unofficial memory.” She emphasizes the group’s contribution to war memory creation, which includes her own purview as a researcher as well as the others’ insights as veterans, survivors, and family members: “We have participated in unofficial memory writing from different perspectives.” 

Yan concludes with a distinction which may speak to why there is room for Douban users to post about war memory in the first instance: “History is objective; social memory is subjectively constructed.”

Albeit a small cohort, the above Douban diary authors demonstrate a strong interest in war memory and an explicit understanding of the ways in which it has been manipulated to achieve state goals. In China, any attempt to discuss or expand war memory – a topic with high stakes for state legitimacy as it is inextricable from the genesis of national CCP leadership – is itself an act of assertive political engagement. The government does not want the story of the war to be up for discussion. On Douban, for now, it is anyway. ∎

Header: Memorial Hall of the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression, in Beijing. (Wikicommons)