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  • Hamsini Hariharan

Here's why China wants us to know that it was the frontline of the Second World War

This article first appeared in CNBC TV-18 on August 24, 2020 and can be accessed here.

On Thursday, at a meeting with veterans, Chinese President Xi Jinping said, "The Chinese people will never agree with anyone or any force that attempts to distort the history of the CPC and stigmatize the nature of the CPC." This speech is not remarkable except for one key point – 03 September is China’s newest national holiday, commemorating the end of World War II.

Last week, Victory Day saw Xi Jinping, along with top members of the Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CPC), laying wreaths at the Museum of the War of Chinese People's Resistance Against Japanese Aggression in Beijing. World War II has played an essential role in shaping China’s view of itself, mainly because it seeks to project itself like a phoenix rising from the depths of the “century of national humiliation.”

While Victory Day has been celebrated in Europe and the USA on 08 May as the day Germany surrendered, most Asian countries celebrate it on 15 August to mark the date on which the Japanese Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s unconditional surrender.

It is only as recently as 2014 that China first began commemorating its Victory Day on 03 September, the day the Japanese army in the country formally surrendered to the Chinese government. At the same time, the government instituted two other national days – Martyrs’ Days on 30 September and 31 December as the memorial day of the 1937 Nanjing Massacre. While the move might have been sparked by then hostilities with Japan over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, it is intended to tap into Chinese nationalism.

Rana Mitter in China’s Good War, says that “As China’s ambition to reshape regional order and cement a national agenda at home come together in the 2010s and 2020s, the memory and legacy of the wartime years will continue to provide an important framework for understanding an often nebulous topic: how today’s China constructs ideas of its own nationhood and of its place in the international community.”

In 2015, China arranged a huge military parade to mark 03 September, which was unusual since parades are generally limited to National Day on 01 October. This year’s affair celebrating the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War was much more muted but still marked. The CPC wants us to remember that China suffered one-third of all causalities during World War II and that it was the main battlefield against Japan. In the current climate of the global recession caused by the pandemic, China wants to project itself as a country that spearheaded efforts to fight the virus.

Asian efforts in World War II are often forgotten. India’s volunteer army of 2.5 million soldiers hugely contributed to the Allied war effort. However, narratives of the war in Asia are complicated because of the politics around them. This raises critical questions about national memory. As people (who have direct experience with the war) get older, how do we make sure that the narratives of the war are not hijacked by nationalism? At the same time, how do we hold space for our historical experiences and trauma with occupation and colonization?

Much of this goes back to essential questions of international relations. Who creates narratives? Who controls them? Who benefits from them?

Both Chinese and Indian citizens would do well to ponder the answers to these questions.

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