The World China Wants
How Power Will—and Won’t—Reshape Chinese Ambitions
On September 3, 2015, a procession of Chinese missile launchers and more than 12,000 soldiers paraded through Tiananmen Square, in Beijing, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Some 850,000 civilians were deployed to patrol Beijing; in parts of the city, business, traffic, and all wireless communications were shut down. But lest anyone get the wrong impression, President Xi Jinping delivered an address meant to assuage those alarmed by all the firepower and manpower on display. “No matter how much stronger it may become, China will never seek hegemony or expansion,” he assured his audience, which included a few dozen world leaders.
In fact, Xi argued, China had played an important part in defeating fascism in the twentieth century, and China was now helping maintain the international order in the twenty-first. Employing the terms that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) uses to describe World War II, Xi hailed China’s commitment to “uphold the outcomes of the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression and the World Antifascist War” and called on all countries to respect “the international order and system underpinned by the purposes and principles of the UN Charter, build a new type of international relations featuring win-win cooperation, and advance the noble cause of global peace and development.”
Under Xi, the CCP has tried to project an image of seeking peace through strength, neither picking fights nor shying away from confrontation. In recent years, however, China’s increasingly assertive and often abrasive conduct has undercut its attempt to claim international leadership. Xi’s appeals to the past represent one way to offset this inherent tension.
But China’s interest in commemorating World War II began much earlier, in the 1980s. The chaos and trauma of the Mao-era famine and the Cultural Revolution had left scars on the national psyche and had laid bare the flaws of Marxism-Leninism as a governing philosophy. When Deng Xiaoping took the helm after Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, the CCP stifled the flames of class struggle and stoked capitalist fervor and consumerism instead. Yet even as the party adapted its ideology, its search for popular legitimacy remained tethered to nationalism and became increasingly rooted in China’s role in World War II, which Chinese leaders routinely held up as evidence of the party’s defense of the Chinese people in the face of foreign aggression and humiliation.
In his insightful new book, the historian Rana Mitter opens a window into the legacy of China’s experience of World War II, showing how historical memory lives on in the present and contributes to the constant evolution of Chinese nationalism. In this deft, textured work of intellectual history, he introduces readers to the scholars, filmmakers, and propagandists who have sought to redefine China’s experience of the war. And he shows how their efforts reflect Xi’s interest in portraying China as a defender of the postwar international order: a leader present at the creation in 1945, rather than a latecomer who gained a seat at the UN only during the height of the Cold War.
As historical revisionism goes, this is relatively benign, Mitter notes. And in some ways, the motivations behind it are understandable: China’s contributions to the war against fascism are rarely acknowledged in the West. Yet Mitter does not shy away from exposing some of the political fictions that the CCP imposes on China’s past—to the detriment of its attempt to craft a persuasive narrative about China’s future.
Under Xi, China has displayed a growing appetite for global leadership. Xi has stated that “China will firmly uphold the international system” as “a founding member of the United Nations and the first country to put its signature on the UN Charter.” As Mitter notes, Xi conveniently elides that it was Chiang Kai-shek, the Nationalist leader, and not Chiang’s Communist rival, Mao, who sat next to U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the 1943 Cairo conference, which laid the groundwork for the postwar order. It was the Chinese Nationalists, not their Communist enemies, who helped establish the UN and the Bretton Woods institutions, including the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
In playing up China’s role in creating the postwar order, the CCP sometimes overstates its case. But just making the case at all marks an important shift in Chinese nationalism, which has often cast China not as a victor but as a victim, especially of Japanese aggression and imperialism. By presenting China as a key wartime partner of the Allies and a co-founder of the postwar order, the Chinese leadership seeks to suggest “that China plays a similarly cooperative role in today’s international community,” writes Mitter. The intended message is that China is more interested in reshaping existing institutions from within than in scrapping them altogether.
This form of historical revisionism has another benefit: it deflects attention from the ideological distance that China has traveled since the postwar years. Until Mao’s death, China was no champion of liberal internationalism; it was a proponent of global communist revolution. Beijing’s new emphasis on what Mitter calls the shared “moral agenda” of defeating fascism conveniently glosses over one reason China can claim to uphold today’s world order: the CCP has largely abandoned its founding ideology. In China today, “the ideological cupboard is relatively bare,” Mitter sharply observes. Under Xi, he writes, China is “still having a hard time defining its economic and security vision as anything other than an increasingly authoritarian not-America.”
Mitter’s assessment that China is a “postsocialist state in reality if not in name” is a refreshingly sober alternative to the Trump administration’s hyperbolic assertions that the CCP was seeking to bring about a “socialist international order” and a “globe-spanning universal society.” Those accusations relied on the fact that official Chinese rhetoric still uses phrases and concepts rooted in Marxism-Leninism. As Mitter’s book shows, such language should not be taken at face value: Chinese scholars and officials often use ideological catch phrases to provide political cover for dissent. In order to challenge conventional narratives, Chinese historians and propagandists have dutifully parroted the “political shibboleths” of their era, including the “direction of Marxist-Leninist dialectical materialism.” But “between the political bromides,” Mitter writes, “the scholars placed a depth-charge under the CCP’s traditional historiography.” Marxist thought remains politically correct in China today, but Marxist arguments are sometimes used in surprising ways. For example, Jie Dalei, a scholar of international relations in Beijing, recently drew on Marxist principles to argue that “China’s rise is first and foremost an economic success story” and that China should use economic diplomacy to avoid “ideological conflict with the United States.”
One of the strengths of Mitter’s book is that it illuminates how different voices within China have looked to history to unearth new truths about the country’s identity and trajectory—not all of them favorable to the CCP. Compared with traditional approaches to telling the history of the World War II era, these revisionist currents reveal less about China’s adversaries than about China itself. Mitter writes that “much of the discussion of the war in the public sphere is not really about Japan at all; it is about China and what it thinks about its own identity today, rather than in 1937 or 1945.” The country, he argues “is not so much in conflict with the Japanese as with itself, over issues that include economic inequality and ethnic tensions.”
Along these lines, Mitter relates how in recent years, Chinese historians have begun to draw attention to the 1942 famine in Henan Province, which killed three million people, one of many chapters in recent Chinese history that require “humor and a large helping of amnesia” to face, in the words of the Chinese novelist Liu Zhenyun. Nationalist policies contributed to that famine, making references to it a relatively safe way for Chinese novelists, filmmakers, and bloggers to present veiled critiques of the Communists’ Great Leap Forward, a disastrous experiment in communal industry and agriculture that produced a famine in which at least 30 million Chinese starved to death.
The chaos and trauma of the Mao-era famine and the Cultural Revolution had left scars on the national psyche.
Since the 1980s, revisionist histories of the World War II era have encouraged a more sympathetic view of the Nationalists, many of whom were persecuted by the CCP after the Nationalist leadership fled to Taiwan in 1949. Mitter follows the writings and travails of Chinese officials, scholars, and filmmakers who have navigated state censorship and resistance from cultural conservatives to bring to light long-ignored stories of the Nationalists’ contributions to the war, including those of soldiers who fought against the invading Japanese army only to be hounded and marginalized under Communist rule. In recent years, such stories have become part of the official narrative. State-approved films, museums, and the 2015 military parade have all incorporated the Nationalist war effort—making sure, of course, to portray it as having taken place under CCP leadership. Mitter aptly describes this as an “uneasy balance between allowing a more inclusive history and trying not to damage the myths of the CCP’s history.”
One is left wondering why the CCP has policed history strictly at some times but not at others. Mitter hints at some international factors driving the CCP’s “grudging relaxation of interpretations of the war,” including its interest in cultivating ties with Taiwan and in reminding Japan of its unsettled wartime past. Ultimately, however, a lack of clarity on this question may simply reflect the reality that under the CCP’s rule, the shifting boundaries of what is permissible are rarely easy to discern.
The CCP faces an uphill battle in selling its newly revised version of China’s World War II history to audiences outside China. Part of the problem lies in Western historiography and prejudice, Mitter writes: China’s role in the war has been neglected for so long in Western countries that few people in those places have an interest in learning more. Mitter has tried to correct that in this book, building on the scholarship of his previous and also excellent work Forgotten Ally.
But foreign countries and their citizens hardly pose the biggest obstacle to China’s quest to use history to burnish its legitimacy: the CCP itself is the main barrier. Even when the party allows a more thorough investigation of the wartime past, it still ruthlessly suppresses narratives—whether about Hong Kong, Tibet, or Xinjiang—that challenge its increasingly ethnonationalist definition of who and what belongs to China. And as filmmakers navigate the party’s limited tolerance for ambiguity, the result is often big-budget films that emphasize the scale and horror of World War II without the kind of nuance that would humanize its victims and perpetrators. For many Western critics, these films provide too much “loud spectacle and cheap sentiment,” writes Mitter, describing the critical responses to Zhang Yimou’s Flowers of War, which chronicles Japan’s brutal occupation of Nanjing, and Feng Xiaogang’s Back to 1942, which recounts the Henan famine.
Even more important is the simple fact that China’s growing authoritarianism is at odds with the dominant postwar narrative in Europe and the United States that explains why the war was fought: to save democracy from fascism. As an increasingly dictatorial party-state, the CCP obviously cannot embrace that version of history or find an easy way to insert China into it. As Mitter perceptively observes, “keeping the world safe for consumerist authoritarianism is hardly a very attractive offer in the twenty-first century,” especially for the leading democracies that continue to put the fight for freedom at the center of their own national ethos. Indeed, the CCP’s growing surveillance state and brutal “reeducation” and internment camps in Xinjiang have led many outside observers to accuse Xi of reviving fascism.
The CCP still ruthlessly suppresses narratives—whether about Hong Kong, Tibet, or Xinjiang.
There is also some risk in Beijing’s strategy of recasting China’s history in order to influence perceptions of its present and potential future role in the world. The more China portrays itself as a defender of the postwar order, the more it might spur a sense among Chinese citizens that their country is entitled to more influence and an ever more central role in international affairs in the decades to come. The rest of the world, however, might not play along. And should China encounter concerted, unified opposition to its global ambitions, the CCP—and the world—might have to contend with a growing sense of grievance, disappointment, and resentment among the Chinese people.
This dynamic goes beyond Beijing’s efforts to recast history, of course. Over the past four years, China positioned itself as a defender of international institutions and agreements threatened by the Trump administration, from the World Health Organization to the Paris climate accord. At the same time, however, Beijing has tried to diminish the role of universal values in the international order, instead elevating economic development and state security over individual political rights.
For China’s neighbors and rivals, the CCP’s mixture of cooperation and confrontation defines the “China challenge”: how to work with Beijing on controlling the COVID-19 pandemic, slowing climate change, and preventing nuclear proliferation while also parrying the effects of China’s growing authoritarianism and pugilistic nationalism. Beijing’s attempt to recast the history of World War II might help them do so. Without endorsing the CCP’s version of history or excusing Beijing’s aggression abroad and abuses at home, leaders in Washington and elsewhere could more explicitly acknowledge China’s contributions to ending World War II and creating the existing order. Doing so might mitigate the growing sense among Chinese citizens that the United States and its partners will never allow China to play a leading role on the world stage. That recognition could in turn help Washington press the CCP to pull back on its campaign to intimidate and punish its critics abroad. An agreement of that kind would not solve many of the problems plaguing relations between the United States and China. But it is precisely the kind of carefully finessed arrangement that Washington and Beijing will have to get much better at crafting if they are to achieve anything resembling peaceful coexistence.