Xi’s history lessons
Related Link The living ghosts of 1945 haunt Asia’s rival powers By Nick Bisley
In early September President Xi Jinping will take the salute at a huge military parade in Beijing. It will be his most visible assertion of authority since he came to power in 2012: his first public appearance at such a display of missiles, tanks and goose-stepping troops. Officially the event will be all about the past, commemorating the end of the second world war in 1945 and remembering the 15m Chinese people who died in one of its bloodiest chapters: the Japanese invasion and occupation of China of 1937-45.
It will be a reminder of the bravery of China’s soldiers and their crucial role in confronting Asia’s monstrously aggressive imperial power. And rightly so: Chinese sacrifices during that hellish period deserve much wider recognition. Between 1937, when total war erupted in China, and late 1941, when the attack on Pearl Harbor brought America into the fray, China fought the Japanese alone. By the end of the war it had lost more people—soldiers and civilians—than any other country bar the Soviet Union.
Yet next month’s parade is not just about remembrance; it is about the future, too. This is the first time that China is commemorating the war with a military show, rather than with solemn ceremony. The symbolism will not be lost on its neighbours. And it will unsettle them, for in East Asia today the rising, disruptive, undemocratic power is no longer a string of islands presided over by a god-emperor. It is the world’s most populous nation, led by a man whose vision for the future (a richer country with a stronger military arm) sounds a bit like one of Japan’s early imperial slogans. It would be wrong to press the parallel too far: China is not about to invade its neighbours. But there are reasons to worry about the way the Chinese Communist Party sees history—and massages it to justify its current ambitions.
History with Chinese characteristics
Under Mr Xi, the logic of history goes something like this. China played such an important role in vanquishing Japanese imperialism that not only does it deserve belated recognition for past valour and suffering, but also a greater say in how Asia is run today. Also, Japan is still dangerous. Chinese schools, museums and TV programmes constantly warn that the spirit of aggression still lurks across the water. A Chinese diplomat has implied that Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is a new Voldemort, the epitome of evil in the “Harry Potter” series. At any moment Japan could menace Asia once more, party newspapers intone. China, again, is standing up to the threat.
As our essay on the ghosts of the war that ended 70 years ago this week explains, this narrative requires exquisite contortions. For one thing, it was not the Chinese communists who bore the brunt of the fighting against Japan, but their sworn enemies, the nationalists (or Kuomintang) under Chiang Kai-shek. For another, today’s Japan is nothing like the country that slaughtered the inhabitants of Nanjing, forced Korean and Chinese women into military brothels or tested biological weapons on civilians. ...