On September 3, 2015, the largest military parade ever organized in the People’s Republic of China was held in Beijing. 12,000 troops were reviewed by President Xi Jinping, joined by many foreign dignitaries including around 30 heads of state, mainly from friendly regimes (Russia, Central Asian countries, Pakistan, Egypt, Sudan…). A show of force was expected sooner or later, to crown the “Great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” dear to Xi. Such pomp, however, is usually reserved for the anniversary of the regime’s founding in 1949. This year’s anniversary was unrelated to the Revolution: it commemorated the Chinese victory of 1945 in the War of Resistance against Japan, as the 1937-1945 conflict is dubbed in China. The regime declared September 3 a new public holiday while promoting an avalanche of publications and events on the war, as well as a campaign of TV and billboard hype of exceptional intensity. In Beijing’s mythical chronology, 1945 is gradually replacing 1949.

1945-2015: China and the “fruits of victory”

The Communist Party of China (CPC) has always claimed the leading role in the victory against Japan, thereby hijacking the legacy of Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang1, which was in fact much more instrumental during the war. It was, indeed, the Republic of China – still in exile in Taiwan –, and not the People’s Republic, that earned the Allies’ recognition and obtained a permanent seat at the UN Security Council (before Communist China took it over in 1971). Nonetheless, the priority now given to 1945 also marks the outcome of a roughly 25-year evolution, which has seen the Communist Party swap its revolutionary laurels for more classical nationalist legitimacy. The sleight of hand that consists in substituting a Communist victor for a Kuomintang one is still sustained for face-saving purposes (in August 2015, the poster for a blockbuster2 simply replaced Chiang with Mao at the Inter-Allied Cairo Conference of 1943). But it is, ultimately, less and less important, for the regime’s patriotism now aims at inclusiveness, accepting the country’s “traditional” heritage and, increasingly, that of the Republic it overthrew in 1949 – at least inasmuch as the latter assisted the process of national recovery.

Nevertheless, the centrality of the victory in the War of Resistance to this new foundational narrative is explained by more than just domestic political considerations: it is also a message to the outside world. On this point, the Communist Party’s position is almost identical to that of the Kuomintang in 1945. If there is a “return”, it is not to Maoism, as a tenacious cliché would have it, but to a conception of “China’s destiny” that bears the imprint of Chiang Kai-Shek far more than that of Mao. In 1943, Chiang had published a book of that title (embarrassing the Allies with its nationalist and authoritarian views), in which he announced China’s return to primacy in East Asia once Japan’s already-predictable defeat was completed. That same year, he obtained the abrogation of the Unequal Treaties and, at the Cairo Conference, posed as the equal of Roosevelt and Churchill. Chinese participation in the victory of the “antifascist” camp marked its rightful resurrection as a great power – which is precisely Xi Jinping’s position today.

This interpretation of the war bears similarities to Russia’s: the September 3 festivities in Beijing recalled those of May 9 in Moscow, marking 70 years since the victory in the “Great Patriotic War.” Putin’s ambitions, the covert war tormenting Ukraine, and – here too – the question of the presence of foreign heads of state (of the old Allies, only China’s attended) made these celebrations unusually important. The victory of 1945, which history textbooks have accustomed Westerners to interpret as the consecration of American power and the triumph of democracy over fascism, has become a rallying call for the two great malcontents of the international order, whatever their immense differences. They deem that it confers a right upon them: the entitlement of the righteous warrior who slew the dragon of fascism, at the cost of great sacrifice (Moscow’s Museum of the Great Patriotic War is flanked by a colossal statue of Saint George) – which is why Chinese and Russians engage in a discreet competition as to which of their two populations suffered most. This common view enables the two countries to strike commemorative alliances, with sometimes surprising effects. Putin was the guest of honour of the September 3 parade in Beijing. Reciprocally, the Moscow Museum of the Great Patriotic War celebrates Chinese-Soviet cooperation during World War 2, at the cost of athletic contortions – eliding, for instance, the difference between Soviet aid to the Kuomintang regime in 1937-1939 and the 1945 intervention in Manchuria that helped the CPC overthrow the very same Kuomintang regime.

These marriages of convenience cannot conceal major differences. Beijing considers that the Cold War prevented China from reaping the fruits of victory that were within its grasp. Moscow, by contrast, plays on the nostalgia of the Soviet era – when the USSR was a feared great power. The Russian narrative of the war is also highly self-centred: a conference held in Moscow in May 2015 discussed the “joint victory”… of the Soviet republics, hardly mentioning the Allies. The Chinese, on the contrary, are keen to emphasize the international dimension of “their” war, albeit with an exaggeration of their role in Japan’s final demise (the atomic bomb is usually mentioned en passant). What matters to them is staking a claim to a seat – in Asia, the seat of honour – at the table of the victors and the Great Powers.

A more significant difference is that Russia, while deploring its unfair side-lining in the post-Cold War world, does not rehash World-War-era enmities in its rhetoric. China, to the contrary, draws a direct link between the memory of the war and current tensions with Japan about the East China Sea, Japanese remilitarization and, more generally, the struggle for hegemony in East Asia. The official Chinese rhetoric is unequivocal: commemorating victory aims not to stir up old hatreds, but to draw “the lessons of History.” These lessons, however, are left vague enough to allow for shifts from one (triumphalist) to the other (pacifist) attitude, as the moment requires. Beijing hammers the message that China has always been an intrinsically peace-loving nation, a trope repeated ad nauseam during the very martial 3 September parade. This takes up, sometimes verbatim, Kuomintang rhetoric during the Second World War: Chiang Kai-Shek’s 1943 China’s Destiny already began with a long excursus explaining that, in 5,000 years of history, China had never once waged a war of aggression. At the time, US propaganda had seen fit to endorse the myth, if only to explain to its own public opinion the difference between Chinese friends and Japanese foes.

There is, nonetheless, an artfully sustained ambiguity in the CPC’s homilies. For they are increasingly accompanied by martial proclamations portraying 1945 as China’s first “complete victory” against external aggression in the modern era, expunging the shame of the “century of humiliation” that began with the First Opium War3. Besides, it is the (very real) Japanese war crimes, and not dreams of peace, that take pride of place in collective memory and mass consumption – TV shows, exhibitions, books and magazines, all of this with clear and often active state support. On September 3, the official TV anchor-man declared, in a clearly menacing tone, that Japan could no longer hope to “hide its crimes” nor “erase the consequences of [Chinese] victory”, i.e. lay claim to an active foreign policy in East Asia or, worse, rearm. Beneath the conciliatory surface of official discourse lie vengeful tones that find considerable echo with a large share of the population. The exhibition on wartime Sino-Soviet cooperation mentioned above ended on a call to use history to promote peace; but last September, right in the middle of the mural that served as a guest book, stood this comment from a Chinese tourist: “Death to little Japan.”

Japanese War Crimes and Demilitarization

For “little Japan” (population: a hardly-negligible 127 million), the 2015 anniversary commemorated, not victory, but “70 years of post-war”. It opened, as it usually does, with a ceremony held in memory of the bombing of Hiroshima on August 6 1945. Under blazing sunshine, the hibakusha (the “bombed”), many of them now over 80, attended the traditional release of symbolic doves and heard the speeches of political leaders. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed his solidarity with the victims and reiterated Japan’s attachment to a denuclearized world – omitting, exceptionally, to mention the “three non-nuclear principles” (non-possession, non-production, non-introduction), before rectifying that faux-pas in Nagasaki on August 9.

The memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is usually consensual, allowing for unity around an ill-defined refusal of the horrors of war. This year, however, this weak consensus hardly masked deep divisions concerning Japan’s military future. The 2015 anniversary occurred in the heat of debate on the revision of national defence laws. Faced with a China flexing its muscles, many leaders – Abe foremost among them – wish to relax the terms of the 1947 Constitution that defines Japan as a demilitarized country. This agenda is often accompanied by a “patriotic” reading of history that minimizes Tokyo’s responsibility for the 1937-1945 war and the atrocities committed by the Imperial Army, a revisionism that triggers Chinese fury. Attempts to reclaim military margins of manoeuver for Japan also face considerable domestic opposition. Radical pacifism is a core part of the country’s political identity as it was redefined after 1945, even though, in practice, this means delegating defence duties to the US hegemon (which would like to see Japan bear a share of the military burden more in keeping with its economic weight). It is this anomaly bequeathed by defeat and occupation that Abe and his backers wish to challenge, out of nationalism, fear of China or the simple will to secure the means of a more autonomous foreign policy in Asia.

China leapt at the opportunity to rub in the theme of Japanese pacifism by extensively covering domestic opposition to Abe’s projects. On August 6, an editorial of the always virulently nationalist Global Times enjoined Japan to “remember the causes of Hiroshima,” ultimately suggesting that the country had deserved its fate in 1945 and should stop playing the victim to downplay its crimes4. The crucial date, however, was August 15, a much less consensual anniversary: the day Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender. A provocative speech by Abe was expected – anxiously by Japanese pacifists and Western diplomacies, with an apprehension mingled with Schadenfreude in Chinese political circles, who were more than ready to be scandalized (just in case, the opening of a museum on the Imperial Army’s bacteriological experiments in China was set for the same day).

All were left high and dry: under pressure from his Komeito allies in Parliament, Shinzo Abe failed to indulge in the incendiary revisionism which he often displays. His speech included the keywords “apologies” and “invasion”, and embraced the legacy of past contrite statements by Japanese governments – including that of Prime Minister Murayama in 1995, the most candid concerning the crimes of Imperial Japan, and considered by the right wing to epitomize a “masochistic vision of History”.

Admittedly, Abe did add that the burden of apology should not be passed on to future generations, and his narrative of Japan’s drift towards militarism, with its apologetic emphasis on economic circumstances and the country’s feeling of isolation in the interwar period, left much to be desired. Nonetheless, Japanese imperialism was repudiated without ambiguity. The PM also avoided the mistake (unlike some of his ministers) of returning to the Yasukuni Shrine, where several war criminals are buried – always a major stumbling block to Tokyo’s ties with the historical victims of Japanese aggression.

Chinese officialdom – who does not want obtaining Japanese excuses so much as maintaining the moral high ground – had to make do with casting doubt on Abe’s sincerity, expressing anger at the lack of new apologies or denouncing – with some reason – Abe’s overly-discreet mention of the “comfort women”5. Chinese propaganda now privileges this theme, for it appeals to other former victims of Japanese imperialism in Asia, foremost among them South Korea. A significant US ally in the region, Seoul is nonetheless drawing closer to Beijing, if only due to vital economic links. South Korean public opinion, for its part, is sharply hostile to Japan, and highly sensitive to these politics of memory. The Chinese regime has deftly played on these two elements to draw growing favour from South Korea, which is on the way to becoming China’s main partner in the peninsula. Indeed, Kim Jong-un was absent from Beijing on September 3, while President Park Geun-hye had accepted Xi Jinping’s invitation. It is unlikely that the unambiguous apologies that the Japanese government made for the “comfort women” on December 27, at the very tail-end of the commemoration year, will prove enough to check this realignment. This too can be viewed as a return to Chiang Kai-shek’s vision for post-war regional security: in 1945, the Chinese leader already insisted on defending the independence and integrity of (capitalist) Korea, in order to not leave it in the hands of the Japanese and Americans, and to obtain the support of a friendly nationalist regime.

On September 18, the Japanese National Diet (Parliament) gave the Chinese government a more serious reason for anger, by passing a law extending the principle of self-defence to sending troops abroad to support an ally at war. This measure would allow Japan to deploy combat troops abroad for the first time since the Second World War. The sacrosanct Article 9 of the Constitution, which denies Japan the sovereign right to belligerence, is left untouched. But its interpretation was clearly shaken, prompting vehement protests among the opposition, the Japanese public – and, of course, the Chinese neighbours. The reform clearly expresses a broader tendency towards remilitarization that, no matter how relative, is designed to enable Japan to act as a counterweight to China in East Asia. In the short term, however, it primarily allows for more direct support to Japan’s US ally in its external operations. Domestic opposition to the project was, in fact, driven far more by the fear of becoming entangled in an illegitimate US war than by any feelings of guilt towards once-conquered countries.

This is, were it needed, further evidence that, in Japan as in China, recollections of the war matter only inasmuch as they can be rekindled and exploited by the state, or by “entrepreneurs of memory”. To be sure, the genie sometimes escapes from the bottle, and Beijing is wary of anti-Japanese demonstrations slipping from its control, as often happens. Nevertheless, the anti-Japanese colouring of Chinese patriotism relates less to the spontaneous resurgence of past grudges – the youngest generations are often the most virulent – than to a fundamental contradiction between China’s current rise and the geopolitical legacy of the Cold War. Kuomintang China was the natural hegemon in East Asia after the victory of 1945. It was the Communist revolution that made an utterly defeated Japan the unlikely privileged partner of the US, extending for a half-century the regional supremacy that the country had grasped from Imperial China since the Meiji era – albeit, this time, a disarmed and purely economic one. The “return to 1945” apparent in the CPC’s propaganda has less to do with collective memory than with an objective return to some conditions of the immediate-postwar. Beijing casts China as the victim of a historical injustice. Based on this premise, Japanese revisionism is perceived as an attempt to deny China the rightful fruits of victory; so is, to a lesser extent, the West’s selective amnesia and belittling of the Chinese contribution to the collective war effort. The memory of the war, carefully kept alive, provides an “antifascist” rationale for keeping Japan militarily insignificant.

  1. The party that led the Republic of China from 1927 to 1949, in exile thereafter on the island of Taiwan.
  2. The Cairo Declaration (Kailuo xuanyuan), directed by Wen Deguang and Hu Minggang.
  3. From 1839 to 1842, Great Britain fought China to force her to open up to foreign trade. British victory led to the creation of treaty ports and the introduction of extraterritoriality.
  4. Japan Should Recollect Causes of Hiroshima”. The Global Times, published in Chinese and English editions, specializes in international affairs. An offshoot of the state newspaper The People’s Daily, its editorial line is pro-government nationalist.
  5. The Japanese army called “comfort women” those women it forced into prostitution or sexual slavery during the Second World War.