Willy Lam on China’s Historical Revisionism

I swore I wouldn’t blog anymore tonight, but a reader sent me this article, which ran in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, and I can’t pass it up. I’m going to let Lam’s words speak for themselves. It’s quite outspoken and certainly contradicts some recent arguments made by commenters about China’s fight with Japan in WWII.

Willy Lam: China’s Own Historical Revisionism

China’s government bitterly accuses Japan of historical revisionism, but the new Chinese leadership should also earn high marks for creative and self-serving misinterpretation of past events. Going by a recent propaganda offensive, for instance, one would easily conclude that the Chinese Communist Party single-handedly defeated the Japanese imperialists in World War II.

The fact is, of course, that when Tokyo surrendered to the American-led Allied Powers in 1945, the CCP could hardly claim victory. It was, for one, expending at least as much effort fighting the better-equipped Kuomintang (KMT or Nationalists) forces as Japanese invaders.

It’s easy to see why China’s ruling communists would want to savor today a triumph that eluded their predecessors 60 years ago. The disinformation campaign requires relentless media manipulation and political mobilization, but it aims to boost the party’s sagging legitimacy as well as preventing archrival Japan from emerging as a political power on the world stage.

As a true disciple of Mao Zedong, President Hu Jintao is a master at molding history to serve political ends. And though the Hu team probably understands that nationalism is a double-edged sword, the “anti-Japan card” seems indispensable at a time when Communism is dead and the social fabric is being torn asunder. Thus the marathon WWII-related ceremonies and television documentaries teaching these peculiar “lessons of history.”

And relentless they have been. While inspecting WWII battlegrounds in central Shanxi Province late last month, Mr. Hu — who has nearly four decades of experience as a Marxist theorist, commissar and spin-meister — noted how “the great victory over the atrocious Japanese invaders” was achieved “under the flag of the anti-Japanese national united front championed by the CCP.” Mr. Hu then paid tribute to the larger-than-life exploits of the Long March generation of party elders.

During the sometimes frenetic commemoration exercises of the past few weeks hardly any mention has been made of the perhaps equally heroic — and certainly of much larger scale — efforts made by the non-Communist elements who fought in the 1937-1945 anti-Japanese war. The state media has also only made the skimpiest reference to the fact that the Japanese war machine was crushed mainly by the U.S. Instead, Mr. Hu earlier this year chose to dwell on how Soviet soldiers had helped China defeat the hated Japanese by fighting “shoulder to shoulder” with their Chinese comrades in the northeastern provinces.

The truth is that, though the KMT leadership that ruled much of eastern and central China during this period was incorrigibly corrupt, Nationalist soldiers did most of the fighting against the Japanese intruders. The great majority of casualties sustained by Chinese soldiers were borne by KMT, not Communist divisions. Mao and other guerrilla leaders decided at the time to conserve their strength for the “larger struggle” of taking over all of China once the Japanese Imperial Army was decimated by the U.S.-led Allied Forces.

Apart from using the 60th anniversary of WWII to drum up support for the CCP, Mr. Hu and his colleagues in the Central Military Commission want to underscore the imperative of strengthening the People’s Liberation Army, which earned its spurs during the twin anti-KMT and anti-Japanese campaign. As the Soviet-trained defense minister, Gen. Cao Gangchuan recently put it, “the history of WWII has shown that we’ll be invaded [again] in the absence a strong national defense.”

Maybe someone will have some thoughts to share.

The Discussion: 14 Comments

The CCP isn’t the only one claiming that Mao et al did the majority of the fighting. I’ve had teachers in the States claim the same. It seems most people I know that I would classify as pro-China of whatever nationality claim that the Communists did the heavy lifting while the ROC forces just attacked them and undermined their noble fight.

I wonder if this is one issue where people read into history based on their current ideology… like Republicans and Democrats on basically everything today. Republicans see every news release from Iraq (or Crawford) as a sign that we are winning the war and Dems are evil. The Democrats see every news release as a sign that the war is Vietnam and Bush is Hitler.

August 13, 2005 @ 12:02 am | Comment

It’s a good article but the contents should surprise no one with even a rudimentary knowledge of Chinese history.

In today’s China, history is the zealously-guarded and strictly-enforced single domain of the govt, a mere tool for serving contemporary politics.

The best recent example of this concerns Beijing’s sudden change of policy towards Taiwan and their attempts to undermine the legitimate and democratically-elected govt of Taiwan by working with the KMT (in fact all opposition groups) and appealing to Chinese nationalism.

Following the mainland visits of Lian/Song, the CCP revised their interpretation of war-time history to *include* the fact that KMT forces also played a not insignificant role in the ‘Anti-Japan Struggle’ (though the exaggerated role of the Red Army remains of course).

Effectively, the CCP have revised a historical “fact” that was carved in stone for 60 years to further its own current policy towards Taiwan.

I’m just surprised there aren’t more people who consider this ‘about-turn’ strange. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that one stood a fair chance of being locked up for saying such a thing.

August 13, 2005 @ 12:33 am | Comment

I got into an argument with my girlfriend on this, after outlining what I’ve read thus far in Jung Chang’s Mao- Unknown Story. According to her, the Japanese were FORCED into the war by the greatest spy in history on Stalin’s behalf, and Mao’s goal all along was to help the Japanese so theSoviets would eventually get involved and partition China between the Reds and the Japanese, a la Poland.

August 13, 2005 @ 1:36 am | Comment

“Mr. Hu — who has nearly four decades of experience as a Marxist theorist, commissar and spin-meister — noted how “the great victory over the atrocious Japanese invaders” was achieved “under the flag of the anti-Japanese national united front championed by the CCP.” ”

In politics, perception is the key. Chiang correctly understood the threat of CCP. But Chiang’s generals had a coup and hold him as hostage to force him to stop fighting Mao and start anti-Japan campaign.

The resistance was indeed mostly done by Chiang’s troop. But nevertheless, the initiative and image was grabbed by CCP.

As a side note, a while ago a book by Jung claimed Chiang intentionally let Mao go. This just tells you how stupid that argument is.

August 13, 2005 @ 4:29 am | Comment

The average Western book on China would probably also give you the impression that the Communists did the lion’s share of the anti-Japanese fighting. Mao was a very good propagandist, if nothing else. (He either began or vigorously propagated the ‘Great Wall can be seen from space’ legend, in order to make up for China not being in the space race in the 60s.)

Another fun period fact; the majority of the income of the Communist forces during the war came from the drug trade. Jonathan Fenby’s GENERALLISSIMO – which is fun reading – is good on this.


August 13, 2005 @ 5:03 am | Comment

I think if Japan didn’t invade China, CCP probably won’t be in power today. The invasion of Japan diverted a lion share of KMT national forces to fight Japaneses instead of CCP and CCP used the opportunity to expand its influence on the rural areas.

There were many elements that eventually lead to CCP winning the civil war and seizing power, the break it got from invasion of Japan surely is one of them in my opinion.

August 13, 2005 @ 9:22 am | Comment

Agreed wawa.

Discussions such as this always remind me of a great article by Liu Xiabo (刘晓波) kindly translated by ESWN. Link and exerpts below but it’s definitely worth reading the entire article:
“When it comes to viewpoints about warfare and nationalism, the Chinese people are no better than the Japanese. The arrogance of the Han tribe about owning everything under heaven continues to live on today as nationalism. More particularly, the way in which the Chinese Communists have fabricated history and used lies to rule since seizing power is much worse than how the Japanese rightists are revising their history of invasion.”

“Since assuming power in 1949, the Chinese Communists have continued to distort the history of the Sino-Japanese war. The Japanese were defeated by the Americans and not by the Chinese. About the united resistance war by the KMT and the Communists, the Chinese Communists have been spreading huge lies. If the pressure from the Japanese did not force Chiang Kai-shek to focus totally on them, the Chinese Communists could not have seized power in China.”

“The KMT and Japanese armies fought more than 20 major battles, plus more than 50,000 smaller battles. The KMT suffered more than 5 million casualties, while inflicting about 2 million casualties on the Japanese. The KMT army paid a heavy price.”

August 13, 2005 @ 10:10 am | Comment

Oh, also included in the above linked article are exceprts of Chinese history text books covering the period. A real eye-opener. See what the kids here are taught—or more specifically–what they aren’t.

August 13, 2005 @ 10:39 am | Comment

“I’m just surprised there aren’t more people who consider this ‘about-turn’ strange.”



August 13, 2005 @ 1:23 pm | Comment

No one with an ounce of impartiality and wisdom could ever believe that the CCP did most of the fighting in China. Most people will admit the CCP was a guerrila force and not very large. So how on earth could the CCP have stopped the Japanese from rolling over the rest of China? It’s not as if the territory was covered in jungle. No, there had to be a force to actually challenge the IJA on the battlefield and that was the KMT.

Let’s have no more of this historical revisionism. It’s no different from references in Chinese textbooks about China protecting North Korea from invasion by “imperialist” America – they completely fail to mention that North Korea attacked the South first or that the UN send an international taskforce to stop them.

Good for Lam is all I can say.

August 13, 2005 @ 4:20 pm | Comment

Martyn, I was pleased at Hu and company ceding that point of history to the KMT. {The fact the newly elected head of the KMT has called on the CCP to cede the history of 6/4 as well must irritate the spin-meisters.}

One should also not forget the United States’ involvement in re-establishing the “United Front” of the KMT and CCP against Japan.

August 13, 2005 @ 5:58 pm | Comment

quite refreshing to see individuals with
an accurate & objective understanding of history.

August 14, 2005 @ 8:00 am | Comment

I agree with Martyn that for most of us the CCPs’ revisionism is not a new story, but in my travels far and wide I’ve run into tons of people who are shocked to hear what people are taught in China. Especially this trip in Eastern Europe (I’m in Bulgaria at the moment, haven’t had a chance to talk to people here but I spent nearly a month in the former Yugoslavian nations), I often get this reaction from people like “yeah, I know exactly what you’re talking about but for godsakes isn’t the whole world finished with that stuff already? I thought we were the last ones!”

I think the most revealing quote in this article is at the end: As the Soviet-trained defense minister, Gen. Cao Gangchuan recently put it, “the history of WWII has shown that we’ll be invaded [again] in the absence a strong national defense.”

I think this is exactly the reason that it is not strange that one day the official history is that the KMT didn’t lift a finger but after the Lian/Song visits suddenly they get written in as playing an important role against the Japanese. More accurately, I think this is exactly why few Chinese people I know would consider it strange, because they all sound like this defense minister. I’ve had high school students lecture me about how they must be vigilant, because if they turn their heads for a second – BAM! – their girlfriends are comfort women and the Japanese are hiding chemical weapons like easter eggs.

That fear is the biggest thing, the fear that one day Winnie the Pooh is going to eat all their honey and rape their women. History in this case isn’t about facts, or truth, or objectivity. History is a weapon and a way of structuring the world into allies and enemies. The U.S. is our friend this week? Show those documentaries about the Flying Tigers! The U.S. is our enemy this week? How close are we to the anniversary of the Belgrade bombing (I have pictures, the ruins stand exactly as they did 6 years ago)? Too late? OK, is the spy plane anniversary coming up? No? OK, show the London bombings and have the commentators ask why Britain is America’s lap dog yet America doesn’t lift a finger to help the bombings.

Yup, I just had a former student email me asking why the U.S. had “no response” to the bombings. Now where did she get that idea?

August 15, 2005 @ 6:04 am | Comment

Nice post dave. Hope you’re enjoying your self in Eastern Europe.

I liked this comment:

“I’ve had high school students lecture me about how they must be vigilant, because if they turn their heads for a second – BAM! – their girlfriends are comfort women and the Japanese are hiding chemical weapons like easter eggs.”

This is a typical result of a tightly-controlled media and of a paranoid govt zealously guarding all channels of information. The point towards the end about Chinese students asking why the US had no reaction to the recent bombings is another good example of state manipulation.

The best example, however, is the Chinese govt not showing any US apology and/or any US reaction to the Belgrade bombing. During this time they totally manipulated the population to where they wanted them. Then the Chinese govt aggressively DEMANDED an apology from the US. Just as that demand was aired across China – BANG – the govt authorised the news channels to broadcast US apologies. This made it look as if the US were instanly reacting to Chinese demands.

August 15, 2005 @ 7:46 am | Comment

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