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The Stories China Tells

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On September 3, 2015, a procession of Chinese missile launchers and more than 12,000 soldiers paraded through Tiananmen Square, in Beijing, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Some 850,000 civilians were deployed to patrol Beijing; in parts of the city, business, traffic, and all wireless communications were shut down. But lest anyone get the wrong impression, President Xi Jinping delivered an address meant to assuage those alarmed by all the firepower and manpower on display. “No matter how much stronger it may become, China will never seek hegemony or expansion,” he assured his audience, which included a few dozen world leaders.

In fact, Xi argued, China had played an important part in defeating fascism in the twentieth century, and China was now helping maintain the international order in the twenty-first. Employing the terms that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) uses to describe World War II, Xi hailed China’s commitment to “uphold the outcomes of the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression and the World Antifascist War” and called on all countries to respect “the international order and system underpinned by the purposes and principles of the UN Charter, build a new type of international relations featuring win-win cooperation, and advance the noble cause of global peace and development.”

Under Xi, the CCP has tried to project an image of seeking peace through strength, neither picking fights nor shying away from confrontation. In recent years, however, China’s increasingly assertive and often abrasive conduct has undercut its attempt to claim international leadership. Xi’s appeals to the past represent one way to offset this inherent tension.

But China’s interest in commemorating World War II began much earlier, in the 1980s. The chaos and trauma of the Mao-era famine and the Cultural Revolution had left scars on the national psyche and had laid bare the flaws of Marxism-Leninism as a governing philosophy. When Deng Xiaoping took the helm after Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, the CCP stifled the flames of class struggle and stoked capitalist fervor and consumerism instead. Yet even as the party adapted its ideology, its search for popular legitimacy remained tethered to nationalism and became increasingly rooted in China’s role in World War II, which Chinese leaders routinely held up as evidence of the party’s defense of the Chinese people in the face of foreign aggression and humiliation.

In his insightful new book, the historian Rana Mitter opens a window into the legacy of China’s experience of World War II, showing how historical memory lives on in the present and contributes to the constant evolution of Chinese nationalism. In this deft, textured work of intellectual history, he introduces readers to the scholars, filmmakers, and propagandists who have sought to redefine China’s experience of the war. And he shows how their efforts reflect Xi’s interest in portraying China as a defender of the postwar international order: a leader present at the creation in 1945, rather than a latecomer who gained a seat at the UN only during the height of the Cold War.

As historical revisionism goes, this is relatively benign, Mitter notes. And in some ways, the motivations behind it are understandable: China’s contributions to the war against fascism are rarely acknowledged in the West. Yet Mitter does not shy away from exposing some of the political fictions that the CCP imposes on China’s past—to the detriment of its attempt to craft a persuasive narrative about China’s future.

Under Xi, China has displayed a growing appetite for global leadership. Xi has stated that “China will firmly uphold the international system”........

© Foreign Affairs

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