China’s Good War

From The Wall Street Journal:

When I arrived in Tokyo in the late 1990s for a five-year stint as a correspondent, one of my biggest surprises was the near total absence in Northeast Asia of international organizations that could foster and channel cooperation in the area.

I had come to Japan from West Africa, a region then widely known for political instability and poverty. Northeast Asia, by contrast, boasted some of the world’s largest and most dynamic economies. When I mentioned to Asian politicians and scholars how, for all of its weakness, West Africa had a dense network of cooperative bodies that mostly functioned well, and I asked them why their region remained so divided and mutually distrustful, I drew uncomprehending stares and even anger. Didn’t I know that Japan had sought to colonize China and Korea in living memory and had committed countless atrocities in the process?

This sort of response would follow me when I took a later assignment in China, leading me to point out that, in Europe, former Axis powers were now joined in a tight-knit community with their erstwhile Allied enemies. What was it about Northeast Asia that prevented it from coming together more closely and overcoming its bitter recent past?

This question runs as a major subtext throughout Rana Mitter’s “China’s Good War: How World War II Is Shaping a New Nationalism.” Mr. Mitter, one of Britain’s foremost historians of modern China, examines how Beijing has exploited memories of World War II and explores its recent efforts to win global recognition for itself as a principal architect and leading upholder of the international order. The results are probing, but covering so much ground in one slim volume probably makes the text somewhat inaccessible for a general audience, especially for those unfamiliar with Chinese politics and Communist Party historiography. Mr. Mitter notes how the country’s civil war between 1945 and 1949, which followed Japan’s defeat in World War II and ended in victory for Mao Zedong’s Communists over Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists, coincided with the period when most of the postwar arrangements were made.

In the aftermath of World War II, the U.S. had expected a Nationalist-led China to emerge as Asia’s leading power and even helped usher it onto the United Nations Security Council. But the civil war and Mao’s victory in 1949, and Beijing’s support for North Korea’s invasion of American-allied South Korea, led to a rupture in relations with the U.S. that would last into the 1970s. It also meant that the dismantlement of the Japanese empire took place without Chinese participation. Today, with Japan and South Korea firmly allied with Washington, and North Korea a client of Beijing, there has been little opportunity for unifying narratives to emerge, as happened in Western Europe.

China has cycled through political radicalism and economic autarky under Mao, canny and opportunistic cooperation with the U.S. guided by Deng Xiaoping, and increasingly ambitious international activism, beginning in Africa in the 1990s and, more recently, throughout the world via its Belt and Road Initiative. The one constant has been a desire to return to regional leadership and indeed global pre-eminence. Mr. Mitter’s book offers a detailed and fascinating account of how the Chinese leadership’s strategy has evolved across eras—and how its recent overtures to regional and international audiences have corresponded to shifts in domestic education and internal propaganda about World War II.

From the Communist victory in 1949 until the 1980s, war narratives in China heavily exaggerated the role of Mao’s forces in defeating the Japanese, thereby playing down the efforts of the Nationalists, whose armies in fact accounted for the brunt of the fighting, including almost all of the major battles in China’s resistance to the invaders.

China’s goal of gaining broader acceptance of its leadership in the world has come to involve recasting World War II altogether. The priority of lionizing Mao and his comrades in founding Communist China has given way to a desire for international legitimacy and admiration. Mr. Mitter shows how this has meant repurposing World War II as China’s “good war,” a conflict in which the enormous sacrifices made resisting the Japanese after the 1931 invasion of Manchuria bought crucial time for Western powers to gather their strength to confront and defeat Japan in the Pacific. Making such arguments has required China to gradually rehabilitate the long-reviled Nationalists, if not as a political movement at least as combatants.

This Chinese revisionism, expressed not just in textbooks, but increasingly in film and television and proliferating museums, now posits China as the most important Asian battleground of World War II and accords China a decisive role in defeating the Japanese. China, in other words, was “present at the creation” of the current international order and so deserves greater recognition for its past sacrifices and acceptance of its future leadership.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

PG notes that Marxist regimes in the 20th century and moving into the 21st have always included an evil enemy. It’s a requirement for distracting the citizens from the disagreeable parts of their lives and their thuggish leaders.

Much of the fighting in many parts of China, particularly early in WWII, was between the armed forces loyal to Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek and the Communist insurgents following Mao. Regardless of one’s opinion concerning which side of that fight was worse, there is no doubt that the Chinese-on-Chinese fighting weakened both sides and reduced China’s ability to repulse or eject the Japanese invaders.

6 thoughts on “China’s Good War”

  1. It’s not about Marxism, communism, or any other ideology. It’s about totalitarianism, which utterly depends upon unifying external enemies, and has since the rise of the nation-state (and arguably even before across the Holy Roman Empire, China, and Southwest Asia). If one filed off the serial numbers and just listed the “critical events” leading to revolution, Iran and the Philippines would look an awful lot like what this reviewer is claiming for present-day China… as would Paraguay. (The so-called “Banana Republics” perhaps less so, but that’s because their sovereignty was always illusory — just look at why “Panama” is even a nation today!)

    I, for one, am sick to death of the WSJ‘s relentless hiding of its conflicts of interest behind Cold War ideological formulae. And it’s not just on the editorial page anymore, either.

    • Enemies are such a uesful tool for dictators that, if there weren’t any actual enemies, dictators would have to create them.


  2. Memories are still long in Europe, at least until the native Europeans are replaced by Africans, Middle Easterners, etc. I still remember visiting relatives near Darmstadt who didn’t like the French at all.

    On China, note that the 1947 film The Spring River Flows Eastwards, which involves the Nationalists not the Communists, was remade in 2005 in China (I’ve watched the 2005 series; it’s good but depressing).

  3. China’s revisionism isn’t going to end well.
    They’ve been operating under delusional expectations on both sides but trying to recreate a past that never existed is clarifying expectations on the outside and they are starting to discover what Imperial Japan discovered in the late 30s and tbe Soviets in the 70’s. That there are ways to squeeze an antagonist slowly, making their life increasingly difficult, day by day, without giving them a clear cassus belli.

    Before they know it their options will reduce to following Hirohito or following Yeltsin.
    Neither will be pretty.

    • It’s much more likely that China will follow the examples of Ferdinand Marcos or Mohamed Pahlevi than of Hirohito or Yeltsin… and that should scare everyone.

      • You think the PLA will overthrow the CCP?
        They’re even more rabid and xenophobic.
        “We need to sink a carrier! Vladivostok was ours and it will be again!”

        Those are more likely to try to follow the short painter.

        That would only result in people finally realizing Boomers are first strike platforms.
        Especially the Ohio and its three Tomahawk brethren.
        Let’s hope they follow Yeltsin.

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