War anniversaries, and their emotional significance, extend far beyond the specific calendar dates of battles, victories and defeats.
Like national independence days, contemporary (and periodic misuse of) war commemorations help us to understand political utilisation of historical facts for present-day purposes.
The rearranging of commemorative dates connected to the end of the Pacific war in Hong Kong to suit broader political agendas is a prime example.
China was terribly mauled by the Japanese following the latter’s invasion in 1937; a reasonable view maintains that the Pacific war actually started in earnest then, rather than with the coordinated Japanese attacks on the Western powers in Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore, the Philippines and Hawaii on December 7 and 8, 1941.
Hong Kong fell to the Japanese on Christmas Day that year.
On August 30, 1945 – 70 years ago today – Hong Kong was officially liberated from the Japanese by British forces.
The British Pacific Fleet – expected to eventually retake the colony by force – had been in Sydney, Australia, when Japan suddenly surrendered on August 15. Immediately ordered to proceed to Hong Kong, the fleet departed the same afternoon.
An advance party arrived in Hong Kong on August 30 and Admiral Cecil Harcourt took the provisional Japanese surrender on board HMS Swiftsure.
The main naval party, delayed by a typhoon off the Philippines, arrived on September 2. Hong Kong’s official Japanese surrender ceremony at Government House was held on September 16. It followed other surrender formalities in Singapore and Tokyo.
From 1946 until the handover in 1997, Liberation Day was celebrated as a public holiday on August 30. After 1997, September 3 became Hong Kong’s official commemorative date downplaying the earlier British arrival.
Other dates are still commemorated.
The Sunday closest to August 15, when the Japanese actually capitulated, is marked by a wreath-laying ceremony at City Hall’s Memorial Shrine.
While no serious historian would seek to minimise the horror of Japanese wartime aggression, any reasonable observer can tell that constant harking back to the war has become official Chinese policy in recent years.
Turning the national spotlight on external grievances – especially historical enemies, such as Japan – neatly distracts public attention from current domestic political and economic shortcomings.
Contemporary “ownership” of the Allied victory over Japan remains problematic. This conundrum is particularly thorny in China, where the Nationalist government headed by Chiang Kai-shek was the legitimate ruler in 1945 and shouldered most of the military burden of the war.
While the Communists played a vital (and generally more reliable) resistance role in certain areas than did the Nationalists – especially around Hong Kong – the fact remains that the overall contribution by Mao Zedong’s forces was much less important.
Thus, in an attempt to find some politically neutral common ground, the “resistance of the Chinese people”, rather than that of a particular political affiliation, has been officially highlighted.
Government signage all over Hong Kong describes the forthcoming September 3 one-off national public holiday as the “70th anniversary day of the victory of the Chinese people’s war of resistance against Japanese aggression”; this mouthful gives the misleading impression, to those who don’t know differently, that the Pacific war only took place in China, and that “the Chinese people” were both the principal architects of victory over Japan and the only victims of Japanese wartime aggression.
Neither assertion is remotely true.
For more on Hong Kong history and heritage, go to scmp.com/topics/old-hong-kong