This essay was originally published at the China Policy Institute Blog at the University of Nottingham on 15 December 2014, under the title ‘Xi Jinping’s Nanking Massacre Commemoration and China’s Anti-Japanese Calendar,’ and is republished here with permission.
2014 has been a banner year for the Chinese Communist Party’s politics of historical commemoration of the War of Resistance against Japan (1937-1945). As the Party has faced a host of internal challenges to its legitimacy from within and around its periphery, Xi Jinping and the CCP have remained steadfast in maintaining public momentum in their ongoing struggle with the Abe government in Tokyo.
Unable to check Abe and his cohort’s perceived moves toward the fringes of historical revisionism, the CCP has responded by doing what it already knows how to do: It has raised the volume of critique and further globalized the ongoing Sino-Japanese history dispute. China has moved to reinforce its own existing state memes about the war with Japan through investment in education, more money being poured into anti-Japanese museums, mandating more quasi-relevant television programs and movies, and the dissemination of history education/propaganda. Beijing has also recognized how receptive the global community is to the narrative of wholesale Chinese victimization at Japanese hands during the Second World War and prior.
The recent establishment of two new national commemorative dates in China intended to criticize Japan reflects the CCP’s doubling down on the wartime victimization discourse. The Chinese People’s Congress decreed on 27 February 2014 that the PRC would henceforth create two new public days of commemoration, falling on 30 September (‘Martyrs’ Day’) and 13 December (‘National Memorial Day for Nanjing Massacre Victims’).
Recent scholarship by Chang-Tai Hung, who has written extensively on nationalism and mobilization culture in both Republican and Communist China, logically told The New York Times that the construction of the new dates on the public calendar was in part an effort by the PRC to maintain the initiative when it comes to dealing with Japan.
Xi Jinping’s appearance at the 13 December memorial event was particularly carefully choreographed, and formed the spine of the entire country’s media narrative for that day. In his speech (full text) at the Memorial Hall for the Victims of the Nanking Massacre, Xi’s language was fittingly emotive and pictorial. He evoked the ‘foul wind and bloody rain [腥风血雨]‘ of the Japanese occupation of the city in 1937-38. While his speech did not dwell excessively on Japanese atrocities, depictions of these were readily supplied by state media. Xi’s tour around the massive Memorial Hall included a look at its grisly photos. Survivor accounts on television did more of the heavy lifting, and a hard-working television crew from Jiangsu TV kept the flame burning all morning.
For listeners concerned with trends in Chinese history writing, Xi’s speech was striking insofar as it marked the full obliteration between any historiographical reticence by the CCP to embrace the Republic of China and its imperatives, at least when it comes to the war with Japan. Xi’s description of the war itself is a case in point:
On 7 July 1937, The Japanese invaders unleashed a full-scale invasion [of China], bringing huge destruction to the Chinese people, burning down Chinese cities and villages, spreading destruction in the four cardinal directions, extinguishing Chinese lives, exacerbating difficulties, bringing hunger and death across thousands of li of Chinese territory.
Xi even decried the fact that one-third of all the architecture in the city was destroyed in the invasion of Nanjing. The fact that Nanjing was the capital of the Republic of China, an entity which prior to the Second United Front had been devoted to the very destruction of the Chinese Communisty Party, is elided over here. The need to imply a United Front with the Kuomintang today means that the historical United Front is no longer of interest to the CCP or as part of war memory.
Xi’s inclusion of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East was hardly surprising, but his endorsement of the work done by Nanjing military court run by Shi Mei’ao from 1946-1949 was quite revealing, insofar as it indicates how PRC legal scholars are absorbing the precedents of the ROC very much as their own. Historical ROC/Guomindang imperatives and policies are being rapidly absorbed by the CCP with respect not just to Tibet, but to the South China Sea territorial issue. The identification of the People’s Republic of China with the Tokyo Trials and Guomindang-led legal initiatives during the Chinese civil war should perhaps not be considered a surprise.
As with so many other aspects of Xi Jinping’s propaganda, there was present in Nanjing on 13 December kind of uncomfortable mixture of modern dictatorship, simplified nods to any given ancient Chinese practice that might be considered useful, and reprising of ideas that would be more at home in China’s Destiny than Quotations from Chairman Mao. The main example here is the large bronze tripod unveiled by Xi at the ceremony, which ‘symbolizes national wealth’ and future prosperity. This was incongruous in the extreme, and an obvious bid to graft the familiar ‘strong nation, wealthy military’ narrative onto the unrelenting pessimism and humiliation narrative that Nanking invariably represents. We are the peaceful ones here seems to be the secondary message. Again, it was a gesture more reminiscent of Chiang Kai-shek (or Li Hongzhang) than Mao Zedong.
Under Xi Jinping, the anti-Japanese commemoration calendar in China is now getting rather full. In addition to the implicit dates of commemoration of anti-Japanese demonstrations (4 May 1919, 9 December 1935), one wonders if the 7 July anniversary of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident and full-scale Japanese invasion of China was somehow inadequate to embrace the national humiliation narrative.