China rethinking its role

With China positioning itself as a leader on the world stage, its government is drawing on memories of the role the country played in shaping the post-War order. This raises tough questions about China’s self-image.

Chinese soldiers march for the 70th anniversary of victory in World War Two
Chinese soldiers march for the 70th anniversary of victory in World War Two. Credit: Wang Zhao/AFP via Getty Images.

The globe has not lacked World War II analogies in 2020.  The Covid crisis has been perhaps the most transformative single global event since the conflict against fascism, and metaphors relating to it have flowed naturally into politicians’ language. Fittingly, this year marked the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe and Asia.

For China it has been a visibly momentous occasion. When the pandemic broke out in Wuhan, the Chinese state quickly turned to a metaphor taken straight from Mao Zedong’s campaigns against the Japanese in the 1930s. The response was described as a ‘people’s war’ against the virus. This year’s Chinese cinematic blockbluster (The Eight Hundred) and top-rated television series (Autumn Cicada) are set in World War II-era Shanghai and Hong Kong respectively.

And perhaps most significantly for the changing global order, at the Munich Security Conference in February, foreign minister Wang Yi included in his comments an observation it is hard to imagine his Maoist predecessors making. The world should remember, he said,  that in spring 1945 China had been the first signatory to the Charter of the new United Nations. Wang Yi’s statement was part of a wider argument now increasingly heard in China: that the country’s role as one of the Allied powers in World War II made it a shaper of the post-war global order, and that it should retain that role in the present day.

China’s global rise is now clear. To transition from a desperately poor and isolated country less than half a century ago to the world’s second largest economy with global reach is not trivial. To become perhaps the second most innovative tech eco-system on the planet, with competitive capacity in biotech, artificial intelligence, and 5G provision, is also worthy of more than passing mention. Hundreds of millions of Chinese people live comfortable lives and have professional aspirations that were unthinkable two generations ago. Economic freedoms in China are among the most productive on earth, allowing a Jack Ma, or millions of other lesser-known entrepreneurs, to flourish (or in many cases, to drown – not for nothing is the Chinese expression for going into private business xiahai – ‘jumping into the sea’).

Yet all of these achievements have taken place under a political system which has, over time, increased economic freedom and security while steadily eroding individual political liberties. While the level of civil liberties in China has always fluctuated, the 2010s have seen a steady erosion on bellwether issues such as the press’s capacity to undertake investigative journalism; freedom to criticize the government (and top leaders) on social media, and the ability of lawyers to take cases of rights violation to courts. The ‘re-education’ camps for Uighurs in Xinjiang and the chilling of critical speech in Hong Kong under the new National Security Law have given the wider world a strong sense that China may be more powerful, but it is becoming distinctly less free.

China is aware that its real achievements are overshadowed, particularly in the western world, by its repression of political freedoms. It has therefore been seeking creative ways to recast its global image. The Belt and Road Initiative, with its promise of trillions of dollars of infrastructure, has been a powerful tool in China’s attempt to create a more positive global brand. There is also evidence that in some parts of Asia (such as Pakistan), sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, there is a greater willingness to give China credit for its financial assistance. Yet these efforts remain patchy, not least because the BRI is still inchoate. While China has been successful at portraying itself as a powerful actor in global politics, it has been much less successful portraying itself as a moral actor.

This is a major reason for China’s increasing enthusiasm to celebrate its role as a founder of the global order created in the ashes of World War II. During the presidency of Donald J. Trump (2017-21), the US took the position, unprecedented among post-war presidencies, of caring little for the global order that had been won in Europe and Asia by the blood and treasure spent by the US to defeat the Axis powers. This provided an opportunity for China to speak much more loudly internationally about a story that it has been telling at home for some four decades. This argument declares that China was a major contributor to the Allied victory in World War II, just as the US was, and that its contribution means that it should have the right to shape order in the Asia-Pacific today, as the US does to this day.

There are plenty of hard facts at the heart of China’s desire to play up its wartime contribution. The Chinese theatre of World War II is perhaps the least well-known in western historiographies. The war between China and Japan was the longest of the wars that made up the global conflict, breaking out in July 1937 after decades of conflict between a growing Chinese sense of nationalism and an increasingly aggressive Japanese imperialism.  For four and half years, the Chinese fought essentially alone. Had the Chinese Nationalists, under Chiang Kai-shek, and their temporary Communist allies, under Mao Zedong, surrendered in the first year of the war, sometime in 1938, as many western observers expected them to do, China would have become a Japanese colony, perhaps for decades. The whole global war would have been different, perhaps never expanding beyond Europe. Yet the Chinese managed to keep up resistance, and held down over half a million Japanese troops in China, until the western powers entered the Asian war after Pearl Harbor in December 1941. The war ended with the atomic bombings of Japan and the Soviet assault on Manchuria in August 1945. China paid a very high price: over 10 million dead, 80 million or more refugees, and the industrial and agricultural economy wrecked by nearly a decade of brutal war.

Yet China’s post-war triumph has had an uneasy relationship with this dark past. One reason for that was simple: the majority of large-scale Chinese battles during the war, as opposed to guerrilla warfare, were fought by Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist armies.  It was impossible for Mao Zedong to acknowledge this after he had emerged victorious from a civil war in which he had just defeated those same Nationalists. World War II was discussed during the Mao years only in very stylized terms, with the ‘leading role’ of the Communists the only acceptable, if historically dubious, interpretation of events. China thus became the only major Allied power not to make the Second World War experience a highly substantial part of the way that it defined itself in the post-war years (in contrast to the centrality of the conflict defined as the Great Patriotic War in the USSR).

This downplaying of World War II started to change in the 1980s. The prospect of reunification with Taiwan led some leaders in Beijing to think that a more positive view of the Nationalist contribution to the defeat of Japan might help to smooth cross-Straits relations. There was also concern about the rise of right-wing politicians in Japan who sought to downplay that country’s war crimes in China. Above all, however, there was a major problem with ideological credibility at home. The Cultural Revolution had ended officially in 1976, shortly after Mao’s death, but the immensely destructive effects of the campaign on China remained very much present. Millions of lives had been ruined for the sake of a divisive, violent ideology of extreme class struggle. China’s leaders sought instead to create a new narrative that could bring people together across class lines. The war against Japan provided that narrative.

Figures such as Hu Qiaomu, a senior and extremely hardline Communist official who had served as Mao’s personal secretary, went on record to argue that the country must do more to recall its contribution in World War II. What was more surprising, however, was the unstated but clear reinsertion of a missing element from the story: the role of the Nationalists and of Chiang Kai-shek as the country’s leader at the time. A prime example of this changing narrative came in the huge Memorial Museum of the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression, a new and unsubtly named memorial to China’s wartime experience which was opened in 1987 at the site of the Marco Polo Bridge outside Beijing, where the war had broken out fifty years previously. While the leading role of the Communist Party in the war was made clear in the museum, the role of the Nationalist government, and the importance of battles in places such as Shanghai and Changsha fought by Nationalist troops, were given a prominence unprecedented in the years since 1949. On television and in the cinema, official permission was given for endless, usually gory, dramas about brave Chinese resistance to Japan, in which Nationalist soldiers frequently played a positive role.

Yet the changes in the narrative were not just top-down, ordained by Beijing’s propagandists. The official permission to stretch understandings of World War II to include the old Nationalist enemy gave many sections of Chinese society more leeway to use the collective memory of wartime for their own social and political purposes, a trend which has gone on now for over three decades. In 2010, one of China’s best-known television anchors, Cui Yongyuan, created a powerful online documentary series which told the stories of now elderly Nationalist war veterans whose lives had been lived in the shadows during the Mao years, and who had been deprived of a state pension awarded to their counterparts in the wartime Communist armies. A big-budget film, Back to 1942, was released in 2012 on the sixtieth anniversary of the wartime event that it commemorated, the horrific famine in Henan province that killed some 4 million people. Many who watched the story of an ineffective government allowing peasants to starve in the fields after seizing their grain saw the story as a lightly-disguised analogy for an event still too politically toxic to discuss openly in China: the Great Leap Forward famine of 1958-62, for which Mao was largely responsible. Another project, Going to the Interior, was a collection of oral histories of refugees who had fled up the Yangtze in 1937-40 to the wartime capital of Chongqing. As they had fled to the Nationalist, not the Communist, capital, their stories had been repressed for decades. Only in the early 2000s were they finally able to tell their stories onscreen and in a major book.

By the early twenty-first century, the collective memory of World War II was widespread in China, and it has become a central part of the mythology that shapes Chinese identity today. It has allowed some consideration of narratives that are not wholly in tandem with the ideology preferred by the Communist Party.

However, the rise of World War II in shaping Chinese thinking does not just apply to its domestic politics. It has also become a profoundly important element of the way that it projects itself in the fast-changing global order. China’s narrative about its global role draws on a wide range of influences. There is an economic element, defined by the BRI, which also helps China to portray itself as a leader with particular standing in the Global South. There is also a growing attempt to use traditional Chinese philosophical ideas, such as ren (benevolence), to define what is distinctive about China’s presence in the world, nuanced with Confucian-esque formulations such as ‘community of common destiny.’ China also continues to draw heavily on Marxist-Leninist theory in defining its global role, although this tends to be confined to Chinese-language discussions within China itself.

Alongside these strands of thinking, China has come  to define more explicitly its international role as a product of its wartime sacrifices. It sees a foundational role for itself  in the global order forged in 1945. This is a profound shift from past practice. Until recently, China’s ‘new era’ was held to begin in 1949, with the foundation of the People’s Republic of China. Indeed, this date still remains central to the party’s mythology, frequently being referred to as jianguo, or the ‘foundation of the state,’ meaning that the country and the party are regarded as equivalent. In that version of history, the years from 1945 to 1949 were regarded as an embarrassing coda to the ‘century of humiliation’ when China was at the mercy of foreigners.

No longer. There is now a significant amount of political weight placed upon those four turbulent, fragile years that began at the end of World War II in 1945. The China created in 1949 – alienated from the west, defined by class struggle, and outside the international order (both western and Soviet-defined after the Sino-Soviet split of 1960) – no longer serves as an analogue for China as it wants to define itself today. Instead, today’s China defines itself – as Wang Yi did at Munich in February 2020, and Xi Jinping has frequently done – as a founder of the United Nations and co-creator of the world order. Dean Acheson, Truman’s last Secretary of State, called his memoirs ‘Present at the Creation,’ referring to the post-war order. China has been giving notice that it too was present at the creation of that order.

Of course, there is an awkward historical reality. The Chinese government that signed up to that order in 1945 was the Nationalist government. The delegation at San Francisco that endorsed the UN Charter mentioned by Wang Yi was led by the Nationalist foreign minister, T. V. Soong, although one Communist (Dong Biwu) was present at the signing too. To endorse the idea of China’s history as a major post-war power beginning in 1945 and not 1949, today’s CCP has to endorse, at least by implication, the legitimacy of its hated predecessor, the government of Chiang Kai-shek. But this ideological sleight of hand provides many advantages. Being an originator and defender of the existing order created in 1945 has provided China with a moral platform for criticising the Trump administration. This version of history, of course, leaves out less Beijing-friendly parts of the post-1945 settlement, such as the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Beijing today tends to dismiss the Declaration and its stress on individual liberties as a western invention, yet it was co-authored by a Chinese philosopher, P. H. Chang.

Additionally, there have been opportunities to use wartime and post-war history to make territorial claims in the present day. In 2013, there was a great deal of reporting in the Chinese media of the seventieth anniversary of the Cairo Conference, the wartime meeting in November 1943 between Chiang Kai-shek, Winston Churchill, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. The three leaders had issued a communiqué at the end of their conference declaring that territories seized by Japan would be redistributed after the war. Chinese commentators in 2013 argued that this included control over the islands in the East China Sea known as the Senkaku to the Japanese, who control them, and the Diaoyu to the Chinese, who wish to take them over. While the argument convinced few outside China, it was a sign that Chiang’s wartime actions on behalf of Chinese sovereignty were now considered a legitimate part of the argument of today’s Communist Party. Similar use is made of documents from 1947 that mark post-war Nationalist claims in the South China Sea, which are now used to bolster Beijing’s arguments that it has a longstanding claim on extensive portions of those waters. Past examples of multilateralism are used to make claims in the present.

China’s use of war memory to shape its international position has been much less effective overseas than it has at home. However, the significance of its efforts is real, and may become more effective over time. China wants to create a global narrative around itself which shares a common understanding of the modern world – the idea that 1945 is the beginning of the current order – but places China at the heart of the creation and management of that order. The narrative had more power during an era when the US, anomalously, had a leader who cared little for the order shaped by America in Asia since 1945. Now that a president with a more long-range view of the role of the United States is about to take office, we may see something different again: two differing versions of what 1945 meant in Asia, as defined by Beijing and Washington – and the competition for moral standing that comes from the embrace of that legacy.  Recently, state counsellor Yang Jiechi declared that Chinese foreign policy would take the form of a ‘protracted war,’ a phrase taken straight from a classic wartime essay by Mao, albeit referring (one assumes) to a metaphorical conflict in the present day. Clearly, World  War II provides multiple lessons for China to bring to its global project.

This piece is based on the Engelsberg Lecture in Applied History, given by Rana Mitter for the Centre for Grand Strategy at King’s College London on 5 November 2020. The full lecture recording is available here:


Rana Mitter