The UN headquarters in New York. Photo: Getty Images
On Reflection
by Rana Mitter
On Reflection
by Rana Mitter

After World War II, China valued its people’s personal freedoms. It should remember that

  • A delegation from China helped found the UN in 1945, when the Communist Party’s Dong Biwu spoke of ‘free elections’ and ‘free rights’ at home
  • The Beijing of today should be proud of the better post-war world it fought for, and recall its backing of individual liberties all those years ago

Seventy-five years ago this week, on 15 August 1945, Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s unconditional surrender in its war against the Allies.

World War II in Asia began with the fighting between China and Japan in July 1937, and over the next eight years, up to 14 million Chinese lost their lives, 100 million became refugees in their own country, and the painful modernisation of the country’s economy, transport and finances was smashed to pieces.
Chinese soldiers and civilians made countless sacrifices before the Western allies – the United States and the British Empire – joined the war in Asia after Japan attacked Pearl Harbour in December 1941.

When Japan invaded China, many Western observers thought the country would surrender within a year. In that scenario, the US might never have been able to join a world war on two continents.

Not just Asia, but the world, would have been very different. China’s war against Japan, fought by Nationalist (Kuomintang) and Communist militaries, was a vital element of the global conflict.


Hong Kong’s unsung guerrilla fighters of the second world war

Hong Kong’s unsung guerrilla fighters of the second world war
China started thinking about the new post-war world even before the fighting was over. In April 1945, with the war still raging in Asia, a delegation of Chinese politicians led by the Nationalist prime minister T.V. Soong arrived in San Francisco to take part in the foundation of the new United Nations.
China’s leaders today take great pride in their country’s presence at that crucial meeting. This February, at the Munich Security Conference, Foreign Minister Wang Yi declared: “As the first founding member of the UN to sign its charter, China has stayed true to the UN’s founding aspirations and firmly defended the purposes of the charter and international law.”

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The foundation of the UN was indeed one of the most important legacies of World War II. The system was not perfect; the exclusion of China from 1949 to 1971 was a misjudgment by the US that made the world less secure.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was wrong to declare recently that the efforts by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger to engage China in the 1970s were mistaken; in fact, they could have made no other choice.

For the UN has become a crucial instrument, frail and hypocritical though it often is, to try and preserve the values that the Allied powers espoused when victory was finally won over the Axis in August 1945.

Whether it is the use of the Security Council to try and prevent war, or the promotion of health through the World Health Organisation, the UN has proved its worth repeatedly over the years. China’s re-entry into the UN has allowed Beijing to contribute to global public goods such as post-conflict peacekeeping operations.

The Trump administration is the first American administration since 1945 not to value the UN, and the role of the US within it. As a result, it has damaged one of the crucial organisations that could bring calm to a very dangerous world.

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The Trump administration’s reluctance to support the UN has given China an opportunity to claim that many of the UN’s values, such as the defence of individual rights, are Western rather than universal. But the founding moment of the UN shows that this was never an accurate interpretation.

The Chinese philosopher P.C. Chang was just one of the non-Western figures who contributed to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, making it clear that the values within it were for all people, not just liberal Westerners.

More important, as the Communist Party of China comes up to its own centenary next year, is to remember the words of the party’s own representative in the San Francisco delegation, Dong Biwu.
Dong took an active part in the negotiations over the charter, and gave public speeches in the US describing what a democratic future under the Communist Party would look like, including “free elections” and a “united government” with a range of differing voices, not just communists.

Only when the Chinese people had “free rights”, Dong declared, could they really thrive – and he wasn’t just talking, as China’s leaders sometimes do today, about economic rights. Dong went on to stress that any Communist Party administration could not permit “arbitrary arrests”, and opposed “one party taking sole control”.

Dong, a senior and experienced party member, could not know when he spoke that the war against Japan would end within months.

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But he was unequivocal that the war would not just raise China’s international status – it would also force changes in China’s domestic politics that would guarantee the rights of the individual to stand for election and speak freely, and not to be persecuted because of political ideology, or ethnic or linguistic identity.

Today, China should be immensely proud of the role that it played in fighting for a better world that came into being in August 1945.

It should also remember what Dong promised: that a new China would mean values of freedom of choice and individual liberty within its own borders that would serve as the country’s reward from its hard-won victory against Japan, as well as befitting its role as a founder member of the UN.

Rana Mitter’s most recent book is China’s Good War: How World War II is Shaping a New Nationalism (2020).