Let September 3 be remembered not for the politics, but for war heroes who fought on the Chinese battlefront

Kerry Brown says no matter the politics, those who fought so bravely deserve to be honoured

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 September, 2015, 12:56pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 September, 2015, 12:56pm

The celebration of the 70th anniversary of the end of the second world war in Asia gives a moment to remember something too often forgotten, and which needs acknowledging while there are people still alive from this era: the huge contribution that Chinese armies and citizens made to the total war effort, in their epic struggle against Japanese imperial forces.

The simple truth today, as historians have pointed out in recent years, is that China was an ally of the US, Britain and the Allied powers over this period. Yet its contribution has never been as fully recognised as it should have been.

Part of this is to do with events that happened not actually during but after the second world war, which complicated the pattern of alliances prevailing during the conflict itself. International war may have stopped in 1945 for China. But internal conflict continued. The civil war convulsed the country for three more years of turmoil.

The unexpected Communist victory in 1949 itself led into an era of new confrontation - under the rubric of the cold war and the American-led struggle against communism. In this new fight, China's erstwhile position as an ally was replaced by a new one as a Red enemy. This was the parlous situation that prevailed for another two decades, and still lingers to this day.

To allow today's politics to encroach on the recognition of yesterday's heroism just adds one more tragedy to the events associated with the war

That change of government in China in 1949 means that, even now, we have an issue over who it is precisely we should be thanking and acknowledging the support of in the struggle against fascism up to 1945. China as a country, a geographical entity, prevailed. But there is the delicate matter of how we have to acknowledge the role played by both the Nationalist and Communist armies fighting under the label of a united front in the Sino-Japanese war.

And, in appreciating this, we have to face up squarely to the fact that it was the Nationalist armies, rather than the Communist ones, which did the brunt of the fighting. This is not to deny Communist armies participated, and, to some extent, contributed. But their contribution to final victory was the lesser one.

After 1949, within the People's Republic, a parallel narrative of the second world war developed, in which the ultimate victory of Chinese armies became largely a story of Communist heroism driven by propagandistic imperatives. It functioned as part of the Communists' quest for sources of legitimacy.

To this day, official explanations of the period that prevail in the country carry a certain ambiguity. They do not spell out the fact that Nationalists were so crucial in the victory, but speak more of the coalition in which Communist guerilla tactics played a huge role. This is now widely believed not to have been the case.

Since 1949, this war narrative for the Communists as major players has been crucial. It figured as one of the mainstays of their claim to the rights to govern the country in the official history of the Communist Party, issued in 2011, where victory in the Sino-Japanese war ranked beside economic development since 1978 and unification of the country from 1949 as one of the three pillars of their right to power.

In this context, it shouldn't surprise us that, in 2015, the party will be seeking to gain yet more support, and kudos, from its association with the 1945 victory. Historians butting in and pointing out some of the less convenient details will be given short shrift.

This politicisation of the second world war is a pity. The large parades and events in Beijing and elsewhere in the country will be regarded by many in the outside world as propaganda exercises, motivated more by the political imperatives of today rather than an attempt to acknowledge what actually happened 70 years ago, and those whose lives were sacrificed to pay for this. A sign of how warily the rest of the world regards the underlying messages being promoted by the celebratory events is the fact that no major European leaders, nor the president of the US, will be present at the military parade in Beijing.

To allow today's politics to encroach on the recognition of yesterday's heroism just adds one more tragedy to the events associated with the war. The simple fact is that the Chinese battle, the fighting by Chinese people, against the forces of the Japanese Imperial Army, despite the huge imbalances in terms of technology and power, merits worldwide celebration and acknowledgement.

It was a major part of the war struggle, one which prevented the Japanese aggressors from being able to throw their energies towards the US or elsewhere in Asia. It tangled them up in a fight which they had originally thought would be a sideshow but which proved to eat into their resources and energy, and which eventually overwhelmed them. As much as the Western and Eastern European front, therefore, the battlefront in China was a crucial location, and one in which some of the most fearsome fighting took place.

On the 70th anniversary, whatever the distaste for propaganda displays in Moscow and Beijing, we need to extricate the politics from the reality. While it is sensible to be wary of bombastic messages carried by the huge displays on the streets of Beijing, it is profoundly right to acknowledge and celebrate the sacrifice and heroism of Chinese people.

Beyond the division between Nationalist and Communist, it was they who gave so much, and who fought so bravely, and who we should be grateful to, and remember, 70 years after they played a crucial part in the global struggle against fascism. Whatever queasiness we might feel about the modern might on display in Beijing, therefore, we should not forget the real contribution that the Chinese, whether Nationalist, Communist or non-aligned, made in the war.

That is something truly worth commemorating.

Kerry Brown is professor of Chinese politics at the University of Sydney, and associate fellow at Chatham House