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Xi Jinping

Was this the day a new ‘cold war’ between China and the US began, Frenchman’s book asks

In an excerpt from his book Inside the Mind of Xi Jinping, Francois Bougon, an Asia specialist at French newspaper Le Monde, considers the significance of a 2015 military parade

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 October, 2018, 4:02pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 November, 2018, 10:42am

President Xi Jinping is arguably the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. A new book, Inside the Mind of Xi Jinping by Francois Bougon, an Asia specialist who is an economics correspondent for French newspaper Le Monde, traces the rise of Xi and questions whether China’s president has been readying for a new cold war against America.

In the following excerpt from the book (published by Hurst), Bougon explains that a grand celebration on September 3, 2015, may come to be seen as a public declaration of the beginning of such a conflict:

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On September 3, 2015, the Chinese regime celebrated the 70th anniversary of the “Victories in the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression”, and the anniversary of the “Global War Against Fascism”. Xi Jinping proclaimed the day a national holiday to commemorate Japan’s defeat in the Second World War.

A military procession paraded through the heart of Beijing on Changan Avenue, which links the eastern and western sides of the city, and proudly crossed Tiananmen Square.

One day, September 3, may also be the date chosen by future historians to mark the start of a new “cold war”, pitting a nascent empire, China, against a declining superpower, the United States. The show of force was undoubtedly aimed at the Americans, and in the front row of official guests sat Vladimir Putin – a close ally whom Xi honoured with his first state visit abroad in 2013.

Moreover, the Beijing parade appeared to be an exact replica of the one that had taken place in Moscow four months previously, to commemorate Russian heroism during the Second World War. No Western head of state attended festivities in either capital. All had declined the invitation – only France saw fit to send its foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, to Beijing – either as a sanction against Russia’s involvement in Ukraine, or as a refusal to endorse manipulations of history.

“Historical nihilism”, contrary to what one might think, does not refer to the shameless falsification of history by propaganda. It is in fact quite the opposite.

In the case of China, there was no doubt that the promotion of this victorious day was a sign that Beijing refused to bend to the post-1945 balance of power.

In harking back to Japan’s past crimes, the Chinese underlined that their neighbour was not the modern democratic country so admired by the West, but indeed the hereditary enemy, the perpetrator of the Nanking massacre, which resulted, according to Beijing, in 300,000 deaths. The true numbers are said to be lower, but this is the figure quoted by Beijing and circulated worldwide as part of a travelling exhibition.

The Japanese and Americans understood that both parade and exhibition were provocations aimed at them. Under authoritarian regimes, military processions are an important element of strategic language – this September 3 parade was worth more than a lengthy speech. To justify this hostile gesture, Xi Jinping has ostensibly rewritten the events of the Second World War in Asia.

He has constantly emphasised the “resistance” of his people and magnified the Chinese Communist Party’s struggle. This manipulation of the facts fools no one. Xi glosses over a key point: the role of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government. He was the leader of the country at the time, and, consequently, the leader of resistance to the Japanese occupation. This deliberate obscuring of the facts did, in fact, spark controversy a few weeks before the Beijing parade.

Posters and trailers of the historical blockbuster film, The Cairo Declaration, showed a majestic Mao attending the November 1943 Cairo Conference beside the American and British leaders, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, eclipsing his Nationalist enemy. Yet, in reality, it was Chiang Kai-shek who took part in this conference to draw up battle plans against imperialist Japan – not the future founder of communist China, who had retreated to his northern base in Yanan to plot his rise to power.

China’s online community revelled in parodying the poster: over Mao, the figures of various other personalities were Photoshopped, from Mr Bean to the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.

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The film’s director, Wen Deguang, claimed the film’s media team had made a mistake and stated that Chiang Kai-shek did indeed feature in the film. But the blunder also embarrassed the state media, since it provided enemies of the regime with ammunition. The Global Times, the current nationalist mouthpiece, expressed its concern with “the historical nihilism and discredit thrown upon Mao Zedong … which has been in vogue for some time on the internet”.

“Historical nihilism”, contrary to what one might think, does not refer to the shameless falsification of history by propaganda. It is in fact quite the opposite. The term describes the total or partial questioning of an episode in the national myth constructed after 1949.

Xi Jinping’s accession to power did not only correspond with the revival of legendary figures or the return of a Manichean polarisation; as we shall see, it also marked the start of a very concrete and determined political struggle against voices seeking, in the name of historical truth, to fracture the distorted and staid official narrative.

But on September 3, 2015, the online taunts had been forgotten, and Xi Jinping donned Sun Yat-sen’s traditional dress, known in the West as the Mao suit; this is the type of clothing that all general secretaries of the party have worn for such parades. He imparted his vision of history just ahead of the procession exhibiting China’s latest missiles, planes and tanks. The victory against Japan, he pointed out, was “the first complete victory won by China in its resistance against foreign aggression in modern times”.

After the humiliation of foreign incursions on its territory from the end of the 19th century onwards, after the shame of the unequal treaties, it was Asian power that had emerged victorious – thanks to the Communist Party, which, under Mao’s leadership, broke the curse that had stricken the empire for a century.

As the Great Helmsman proclaimed in October 1949 on Tiananmen Square, China had stood up.

This is also the image contained in the first verse of the national anthem, The March of the Volunteers, which was sung before the start of Xi’s speech: “Arise, ye who refuse to be slaves!” Xi has resolutely adopted this mentality: to remain defiant and hold one’s head high, time and again, in the face of yesterday’s and today’s enemies – starting with Japan, now the Americans’ greatest ally in the Asia-Pacific region.

In short, September 3 celebrates the “great triumph” that “put an end to China’s national humiliation”, “opened up bright prospects for the great renewal of the Chinese nation and set our ancient country on a new journey after achieving rebirth”. In 2015, all was bombast and grandiloquence; 12,000 soldiers were mobilised, and the streets were lined with red flags. Open-top buses transported veterans and their families to the parade on this sunny, late-summer day.

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At the beginning of his speech, Xi announced: “On behalf of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, the State Council [the government], the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference [a rubber-stamp parliamentary body], and the Central Military Commission, I pay high tribute to all the veterans, comrades, patriots and officers in China who took part in the War of Resistance and all the Chinese at home and abroad who contributed significantly to the victory of the War.”