War commemoration suggests modern purpose for Beijing's version of history

President Xi Jinping's involvement at war commemoration suggests a modern purpose for Beijing's version of history

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 July, 2014, 3:25am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 July, 2014, 3:25am

Commemorations of historic events are often used for the purpose of modern-day politics.

While the celebration of important events from the second world war is nothing new in China, this year's ceremony to mark the start of the second Sino-Japanese war was highly unusual.

Under a decimal system, China usually attaches importance only to every 10th anniversary of historic events, or, to a lesser degree, to every fifth anniversary.

However, the attendance of President Xi Jinping at Monday's commemorations of the 77th anniversary of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident - shown on national television for the first time - gave it unprecedented importance.

State media explained its importance this year by criticising Tokyo's recent moves for historical revisionism and actions towards potential re-militarisation.

China Daily said Xi's attendance suggested the leadership attached particular importance to this year's service.

Xinhua said: "Seventy-seven years later, the psychological wounds of the Chinese people have not been fully healed."

The People's Daily said the "anniversary will serve as a reminder to the world to learn lessons from history".

The high-profile nature of this year's service reflects growing Chinese unease with modern-day Japan. Beijing has been particularly infuriated by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's provocative actions - particularly his visit in December to a controversial Tokyo shrine that also honours war criminals, and his government's action to re-interpret the country's pacifist constitution last week.

Internationally, Beijing wanted to use the occasion to deliver a political message that "those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it", as George Santayana, the Hispanic-American philosopher, once suggested.

Yet, as the saying goes, all politics is local; what Beijing wanted was for the message to be seen by a domestic audience, as it knows too well that playing to popular anti-Japanese sentiment helps the Communist Party maintain legitimacy.

The Sino-Japanese war is one of the party's most significant political legacies, and Xi, at the ceremony, spoke at length about the party's leading role in defeating the Japanese.

The anniversary came amid heightened public anger over corruption, despite Xi's effort to intensify the fight. It is also obvious that Xi wanted to use the humiliating history as a rallying call, to unite the people of the mainland, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and the ethnic minority regions of Xinjiang and Tibet and help accomplish what he calls the Chinese renaissance.

However, the party's long official account of the war has been questioned this year. Historians believe the allied United States-Republic of China (the Nationalist government) forces and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki played a key role that culminated in Japan's surrender.

That is why, on the same occasion, former Taiwanese premier Hau Pei-tsun, challenged Xi's view. "It was the Nationalist forces, led by Chiang Kai-shek who won the war," the 94-year-old second world war veteran, who joined the Nationalist army in 1938, told staff at the Museum of the War of Chinese People's Resistance against Japanese Aggression, where Xi spoke.

Hau's comment and the memorial service were discussed by millions on Weibo. Some questioned the purpose of the televised service and Xi's historical assertions.

"Was it that the government wanted to stir up hatred among the people?" one blogger asked.

"The Sino-Japanese war had nothing to do with your most glorious party," wrote another.

Perhaps they were referring to what Nobel laureate George Bernard Shaw once suggested: "We learn from history that we learn nothing from history."