How China tried to rewrite history with military parade

September 08, 2015 08:54
President Xi Jinping reviews the troops during last week's military parade to mark Japan's World War II defeat. In his speech, Xi acknowledged 'extensive support' from the international community without mentioning the US. Photo: Reute

While China’s dazzling military parade last week can be understood on several levels, the underlying purpose of the entire show, in which 30 heads of state or government participated, was clear and straightforward: It was to rewrite history.

The Dartmouth historian Pamela Kyle Crossley aptly dubbed the entire exercise “the pursuit of purloined glory”.

President Xi Jinping sonorously claimed in his address atop the Tiananmen Square rostrum: “Seventy years ago today, the Chinese people, having fought tenaciously for 14 years, won the great victory of their war of resistance against Japanese aggression.”

None of his guests was rude enough to contradict him, but many must have known that what happened 70 years ago was that the United States, not China, defeated Japan.

In fact, up to Aug. 15, 1945, when Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s unconditional surrender after the US dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, China had been unable to end the Japanese occupation of large parts of the country.

In his announcement, Hirohito did not even refer to the war with China but only talked about Japan’s war with America and Britain “for nearly four years”.

Those wars were triggered by Japan’s simultaneous attack on Pearl Harbor and on the then British territories of Malaya, Singapore and Hong Kong.

“The enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable,” Hirohito said.

On Sept. 2, Japan formally signed surrender documents on the deck of the USS Missouri -- not aboard a Chinese ship -- in Tokyo Bay.

To be sure, the Chinese government of the time, that of President Chiang Kai-shek, was represented, as were those of other allies, such as Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, New Zealand and the provisional government of the French Republic.

They were all victors although none today would claim that they had “won total victory against the Japanese militarist aggressors,” as Xi now claims China had done.

In fact, China in 1945 was not treated as a major contributor to the war against Japan.

Chiang was invited to the Cairo conference in November 1943 to meet with Roosevelt and Churchill but he was not invited to Yalta in February 1945 when Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin met and signed an agreement that involved Soviet interests in China.

Roosevelt promised to seek Chiang’s “concurrence.”

Similarly, leaders of the three countries met again at Potsdam in July-August 1945, in the closing days of the war, and again China was not present.

China’s one great contribution to the war was not surrendering to Japan, thereby tying down large numbers of Japanese troops that could have been sent to other theaters of war.

In his speech, Xi acknowledged “extensive support from the international community” without mentioning the United States.

The Soviet Union was the only country Xi mentioned by name.

Throughout his speech, Xi did not allude to the fact that the Chinese government during the war was not that of the People’s Republic of China, which was not formed until 1949.

In 1950, that new communist government sent troops to help North Korea in its invasion of South Korea and to battle soldiers fighting under the United Nations flag on the South Korean side -- troops mainly from the US but also from Britain, France, Canada, Australia and New Zealand -- all countries that had helped to defeat Japan.

Last week was the first time Beijing had celebrated the defeat of Japan. It had waited 70 years to do so.

While being the recipient of Japanese economic aid in the 1980s and 1990s, China today has the upper hand, having overtaken Japan as the world’s second largest economy in 2010.

While Japan was the primary target of China’s hyped-up celebration of the end of World War II, the military parade itself, with its public display of the country’s most advanced missiles, was also aimed at the United States, sending Washington the message that it has to take China’s interests into account on all major issues.

In rewriting history, the Communist party is also seeking to buttress its legitimacy.

By not mentioning the Kuomintang government that it overthrew, communist leaders seek to relegate the Kuomintang government of President Ma Ying-jeou in Taiwan -- the successor of Chiang’s government -- to historical irrelevance.

The fact that Lien Chan, former premier and former vice president, attended the Beijing parade profoundly undermined the Kuomintang, the party of which he was chairman from 2000 to 2005, while enhancing the standing of its historical rival, the Communist Party.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.