While the tendency of the CCP to insert itself at the main junctures of Chinese history in the 20th century is anything but new, there has been an increasing alignment with the earlier Republic of China that has been quite pronounced, I would argue, since at least 2005. For the past ten years, scholars have interpreted this (and the inclusion of ROC troops in various war museums) mainly as a means of increasing cross-Straits rapprochement and downplaying the ferocity of the internecine violence that followed the Japanese surrender.
World War II, the Great Leap Forward and its famine, and the Cultural Revolution are frequently seen as the great traumas of China’s 20th century, but the Chinese civil war (1945-1950) is right up there in terms of how much physical and emotional agony it caused.
What is different now, in 2015, is that Xi Jinping and his mighty bureaucracy seem absolutely determined to depict the PRC as ‘present at the creation’ of the postwar global order, a global order which they interpret as being constructed around the constraining of Japanese power, cognizance of Japanese brutality, and punitive toward Japan — in the sense of keeping Japan very much in the metaphorical defendant’s docket and recalling also the Tokyo War Crimes Trials.
The move to align contemporary Japan with its destabilizing and guilty past as clear implications and utility for China in East Asia today, as the Beijing government and the PLA is increasingly seen as the foremost challenge to the strategic architecture of the region.
According to the trailer of the film, I don’t believe the producers have 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 seems to be stretching things.
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 expand 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 international policy is overreaching.
This short essay was originally submitted to The Guardian in response to a request for a comment; Tom Phillips is thanked for soliciting my views. See: Tom Phillips, ‘Bloggers ridicule Chinese film placing Mao Zedong at wartime conference,’ The Guardian, 17 August 2015.
Image: US envoy Patrick Hurley speaks with Mao Zedong & comrades in Yan’an in August, 1945, prior to flying with Mao to Chongqing on 27 August for the purpose of negotiating an agreement with Chiang Kai-shek (via US National Archives and Records Administration).