Written by Hans Van de Ven.

On August 15, 1945, Emperor Hirohito announced in his first ever radio broadcast that he had instructed his cabinet ‘to communicate to the governments of the USA, UK, China, and the Soviet Union that Our Empire accepts the provisions of their Joint Declaration’.

This was the Potsdam Declaration in which the Allies insisted that Japan surrender unconditionally. Emperor Hirohito added that all Japanese now must shoulder ‘the solemn obligation’ to ‘strive for the common prosperity and happiness of all nations’. In Chongqing, President Chiang Kaishek, then China’s leader, responded to Emperor Hirohito’s announcement in his own radio address on the same day, insisting that China should be guided by the Christian imperative ‘do unto others as one would like them do unto you’. He declared that China should ‘treat Japan with generosity and magnanimity’, a policy popularized with the slogan ‘repay evil with kindness’ (以德报怨). Seventy years on, what can we say about how far Japan and China have been able to live by these two solemn expressions of hope?

The first thing to note is that there has been no new war between China and Japan, to the great benefit of both countries. Japan has not been involved in any war at all, having adopted a self-denying constitution. China fought one large war, with the USA and South Korea in the 1950s, as well as smaller ones, with India in the 1960s and Vietnam in the 1970s, but not with Japan. Peace gave Japan the time to rebuild its economy with American assistance immediately after the war, making it one of the world’s most prosperous countries by the 1980s. China followed after Deng Xiaoping initiated his program of reform and opening up in 1978.

This long East Asian peace came about in part because the USA assumed the responsibility to police it, having learned during the Korean War that the price for destroying Communist China, as some initially preferred, would be too high. China and Japan too have worked at maintaining this peace, signing treaties, joining international organizations, developing business links, and promoting scholarly and cultural cooperation. The result is that over the last seven decades the expectation has sunk deep roots that peace rather than war is the normal state of affairs, even if tensions between China and Japan have grown stronger in recent years.

Secondly, both countries have found it difficult to make the present safe from the ghosts of the past. This is true for Japan, where right wingers prefer a new assessment of Japan’s role in WWII and a few deny even the Nanjing Massacre. But it was also very late in the day, only last year, that the PRC adopted 3 September as a national day of commemoration for China’s victory over Japan. This needs explaining.

China could have chosen another date. 9 September was the day when Japan surrendered its forces in China in 1945 in a carefully crafted ceremony that began at 9am. The hope of China’s leaders then surely was to turn the ‘ninth hour of the ninth day of the ninth month’, 9-9-9, in as solemn a moment in the nation’s calendar as ‘the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month’, the date in 1918 upon which the armistice that ended WWI began. When last year China’s leadership opted for 3 September rather than 9 September, it did so, first, because 9 September would have drawn too much attention to the Nationalists, their former enemies. It was to them, not the Communists, to whom the Japanese surrendered in 1945. Second, 3 September is when Victory over Japan Day is celebrated internationally. On that date in 1945, Japan’s highest political and military leaders surrendered to their Allied counterparts in Tokyo. The choice for 3 September is also meant to underscore that China was as important in defeating Japan as its Allies, and to suggest that, like them, it had stood on the side of the good.

China this year is going all out in commemorating the end of WWII because Beijing wants to use WWII to construct a new historical narrative, one in which joint resistance to Japanese aggression stands central, rather than the fight against domestic enemies as it did for so long. The positive side of this turn of events is that it gives a far more dignified space in Chinese society to all those who fought for China as members of the Nationalist government and its armed forces during the War of Resistance. The huge military parade conducted today also is meant to illustrate that China now has the military wherewithal of a great power and so can protect its population properly, important because for the last two centuries China suffered defeat after defeat and invasion after invasion.

This new stress on the significance of WWII, and on China’s place in it, elides significant ways in which WWII in China was different from elsewhere. The concept of the WWII is an American one. In the USA, President Franklin Roosevelt exploited it to mobilize a reluctant US public to support the war and to suggest that it would serve the creation of a post-war world order in line with US values and interests. During WWII, the British talked about ‘The Great War’ or just ‘The War’ and the Soviets about ‘The Great Patriotic War’, while the Chinese called it, as they still do, ‘The War of Resistance against Japan.’ The term WWII became current outside the USA only after the end of the fighting. As one British historian put it, ‘only in 1948 did the British government decide that it had just been fighting the “second world war”’.

There is no doubt of China’s importance in defeating Japanese aggression. It is true that the USA and the USSR delivered the decisive blows in 1945, with the US navy driving the Japanese back across the Pacific and the Soviets crushing Japan’s Kuantung Army in China’s Northeast. But before that China fought Japan virtually alone for many years, in fact paying a heavy price for assisting the UK and the USA in the recovery of Burma. Had China given up, WWII could well have ended very differently. The value of China in the WWII is beyond doubt.

China was different in part because it was internally divided: the Nationalists in Chongqing and the Communists in Yan’an, while bound together in a United Front, competed with each other, increasingly violently so. Local strongmen ruled Yunnan, Guangdong, Hunan, and Shanxi (山西) virtually autonomously. Various other regimes sought to develop a modus vivendi with Japanese overlordship.

China’s WWII, too, was never about the defeat of Japan alone, but also about creating a new China, visions for which were radically different. Serious discussion about what this new China might look like took place among historians, writers, journalists, philosophers, artists, political leaders, and the general public. These differences by 1945 had narrowed down to a choice between the Communists and the Nationalists, the two major forces that remained. In the end, all had to choose between the one or the other.

This explains why, when Japan fell and the USA and the UK declared the war over, the fighting continued in China. The Chinese Communists used WWII to mobilize rural society. Mao Zedong began WWII with around 30,000 troops. By 1945 he directed a force of one million men. The Communists by then controlled much of north China, ruling over some 100 million people. This outcome was the result of Mao’s policy of only waging small-scale guerrilla warfare against the Japanese while letting the Nationalists suffer the brunt of their attacks. There is no doubt that without WWII, the Communists would never have gained power. Mao acknowledged as much when in 1972 he told the visiting Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka to stop apologizing for Japan’s invasion because without it the Communists would still be in the hills.

The Communists were the lucky inheritors of a victory to which they had not contributed a great deal. That is not to say that Beijing is wrong in finally giving WWII proper recognition. The new emphasis on internal reconciliation is far more preferable then what went before. However, the truth of the Communists’ role in WWII and the fact that under its rule so many suffered for so long – the Communists killed far more people than the Japanese – also calls for an attitude of sober humility and historical honesty, qualities that are lacking today.

Hans Van de Ven is Professor of Modern Chinese History at the University of Cambridge. Image credit: CC by paukrus/Flickr.