Written by Adam Cathcart and Wankun Li.

Urged on by Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its arts, scholarship, and regional bureaucracies have gone into overdrive to shape a new version of China’s history during World War II. As the 3 September “Victory Day” march in Beijing approaches, the film The Cairo Declaration has led to a minor storm of domestic criticism, indicating that the drive has not been without its problems. This essay argues that the Cairo Declaration deserves attention with respect to what it tells us about China’s global narrative of the war, and the tension that the new narrative has with traditional historiography as well as local histories.

Situating Cairo 1943 in Current Commemorations

Chinese audiences nationwide have been subjected in recent years to a series of “tribute” movies (献礼片) guided by the Chinese Communist Party. The most well-known such film connected to the commemorations of the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War, The Cairo Declaration, will be premiered on 28th August 2015. Of the three major summits of World War II — Cairo, Yalta and Potsdam — the Cairo Conference of 1943 has the distinction of being the only one to which China was inivited. Chiang Kai-shek led the delegation as China’s main representative, while his wife Song Meiling and a number of important Guomindang generals and foreign affairs officials also attended.

From the standpoint of the current leaders in Beijing, the Cairo conference is useful in emphasizing China’s historical position as a ‘stakeholder’ in global affairs. Using Cairo as a reminder of Japan’s wartime destabilization of East Asia, and as a tangible symbol of US-UK-Chinese cooperation in particular, has become an important part of contemporary Chinese messaging. Many details naturally get lost in this process: Cairo’s disastrously vague formulation of Korean independence “in due course” and, in the case of Yalta, Stalin’s eventual secret deal with the Western powers giving him deep and humiliating concessions in postwar Manchuria. What matters today is that a global audience can be reminded that China sacrificed massive amounts of blood and treasure on the Allied side in World War II. Not only that, but in the process a Chinese domestic audience can be reassured that the world today remembers the destruction caused by Japan during the war, and is on China’s side in making sure the surly forces of Japanese revisionism are not allowed to forget it either.

Tribute or Fiction?

Unfortunately for the CCP, these efforts can go off the rails rather easily in the current media climate. For one thing, external events can interfere with the commemorations — the massive chemical explosion and possible environmental catastrophe happening in one of the country’s biggest ports being a prime example.

It is also possible for the propaganda apparatus to become overzealous and to go over the lines of credibility. Chinese audiences may have very little formal history education about the Cultural Revolution, but the history of the Second Sino-Japanese War, and its global aspects, is understood with great detail. At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, the history of the “War of Liberation” (i.e., the Chinese Civil War) that followed immediately in the wake of the ambivalent victory over Japan is also extremely well known.

With the publication of the Cairo Declaration film posters and the posting of the film trailer online, the director of the film attracted criticism from historians and even the editor of the party-controlled Global Times because he put Mao Zedong as the poster boy in the Cairo Conference instead of Chiang Kai-shek, the actual leader of Republican China during the World War II. The ridiculous poster has become the butt of jokes by many of users of Weibo, the Chinese Twitter, and become a hot topic this week.

As the trailer of the film makes clear, the producers of the film have not gone so far as to send Mao to Cairo in the film, but placing him at the vanguard of establishing the global order in 1943 is a clear stretch. At this point, when he was in his cave in Yanan, Mao had yet to meet a single representative of the American government, and the Dalai Lama, who was not even 10 years old, got more correspondence from the US President. While Mao had written some important anti-Japanese treatises in 1937 and 1938, by the time the Cairo Declaration came around, he was primarily concerned with expanding his inland base area against Nationalist government resistance and calculating his best chances to overtake Chiang Kai-shek after the Japanese surrendered. The United Front was essentially a shell after 1940. Mao was extremely well-informed about how the wider war in Europe, in China, and the Pacific was going, but to depict him as the mental crucible of China’s World War II effort is overreaching.

While it would be easy to mock outright the CCP’s missteps in publicizing the film, or to note the need for historical accuracy as a precondition of reconciliation efforts in East Asia, such criticisms would probably be somewhat redundant. More helpful instead would be an examination of how the Cairo Declaration film represents a tension in between local and global aspects of China’s cultures of war commemoration.

Chongqing as Production Base for a New History

The Cairo Declaration was produced by Chongqing Film Company (重庆电影集团) and August 1st Film Studio (八一电影制片厂), and was shot in Chongqing’s Liangjiang New Area, which is the key national development and opening zone in the Southwest of China. One of only three such zones nationwide, Liangjiang is matched up with Tianjin Binhai New Area (of recent explosion notoriety) and Shanghai Pudong New Area. As the director of The Cairo Declaration said, Chongqing is a unique city possessing rich historical resources about the Second Sino-Japanese War in China. The role of Chongqing in World War II is increasingly attracting attention from the central government in Beijing. As such, the city is an ideal venue for examining the contemporary Chinese government’s understanding of the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (抗日战争), which is a more general name of the Second Sino-Japanese War in China, from the Chongqing local history.

As the wartime capital from 1938 until May 1946, Chongqing today possesses innate advantages in propagandizing the correct direction (正确方向) of the Chinese anti-fascist topic. From 1938 to 1944, there were more than 268 air rids conducted by the Imperial Japanese Army Air Service against Chongqing, with more than 11,500 bombs dropped. The air raid of 5 June 1941 was one of the most notorious; after three hours of bombing, some 4,000 residents who had hidden in a tunnel at the city center of Chongqing were injured and killed because of asphyxiating and stampede. The iconic photo of these victims is sometimes mislabeled online to represent victims of the Nanking Massacre — another event Xi Jinping has taken pains to re-highlight — but its symbolic power remains undimmed.

In the 1980s, the Memorial of the Chongqing Bombing Tragedy was built on the site of the tunnel. To commemorate the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender, a proposal for building a larger museum to the bombing has been put forth for consideration by the Chongqing Government recently. Another museum in the city represents a more heroic narrative, one symbolizing of Sino-American friendship during the war.

Chongqing’s Museum of the Flying Tigers, the American Volunteer Group of the Chinese Air Force is nestled above the Yangtze River in the old headquarters of General Joseph Stillwell. That Museum has become a regular stop for American visitors and diplomats in China, who are able to admire a large bronze bust of the man known as “Vinegar Joe” and anchor contemporary business ties between Chongqing and the US in a longer history of friendship.

The Chinese Communist Party’s full-on absorption of Republican history, however, is not without its local tensions. Chongqing’s Republican-era history as a Guomindang stronghold has long been painted with dark hues in traditional Communist Party narratives. One of the most well-known communist revolutionary novels in China, Red Crag, is about the story of communist prisoners, who were living in Chongqing Zha Zidong, a jail set up by the Guomindang Government for communist members in 1940s, and were tortured to death by the Guomindang warden. Putting forward unmistakable themes of anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism, the novel and the Zha Zidong Museum contain a strongly negative portrayal for the Sino-American Cooperative Organization, which gathered intelligence for use against Japan during World War II.

The same situation can be found in the Red Crag Village Museum (红岩村), on the outskirts of Chongqing. This was the office of the Communist Party and Eighth Route Army during the war. Although it could be uncomfortably re-interpreted as a symbol of the United Front with the Guomindang, the extensive museum on the site emphasizes the struggle against the then-national government. Mao Zedong lived here during the Chongqing talks with Chiang Kai-shek in 1945, but the site was also used by Zhou Enlai to command the underground communist agents against Guomindang, who are the subject of another museum in the city’s hills. For any Chinese visitors to the Red Crag Village Museum, a full reorientation of the museum’s emphasis done solely in the name of depicting the Chinese Communist Party as a loyal foot soldier in the United Front against Germany and Japan from 1937-1945 would be not just arbitrary, but nonsensical.

Conclusion

Chinese diplomats and media outlets today will continue to spread the word about China’s role at the Cairo conference, just as in previous years they have emphasized China’s role at the Tokyo Trials, and the CCP’s justice in trying Japanese war criminals. Left out of these discussions will be any mention of the tensions that the Chinese Communist Party itself was undergoing with the Guomindang during the war, let alone the attempted destruction of the Guomindang during the punishing years of civil war that followed essentially immediately after the Japanese surrender. In reality, Chiang Kai-shek was busy in Cairo advancing China’s war effor while Mao Zedong was busy with the Rectification Movement in Yan’an to cement his leading role in the Party.

Adam Cathcart is lecturer in Chinese history at the University of Leeds. Wankun Li is a PhD student in history at the University of Leeds, with a focus on Chongqing. Image Credit: CC by National Archives/Flickr.