By Abby Shamray
Attempts by the Chinese Communist Party and President Xi Jinping to rewrite the history of World War II this summer have incited a flood of incendiary memes and reactions on Chinese social media. Since 2014, Xi has made repeated comments urging historians and intellectuals to research more fully the “unwavering role” that the Chinese Communist Party played in the war against Japan. Yet many critics retort that such a revision of history is merely a ploy to cater to anti-Japanese sentiments in China and increase support for the ruling party. If there were any doubts of Xi’s motives, two events in August all but confirmed the suspicions of these political commentators: the release of a film poster and trailer for a movie about the Cairo Declaration, and a military parade in Beijing honoring China’s role in World War II.
The film focuses on the Cairo Conference, a meeting between Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Chiang Kai-shek, then-leader of the Taiwanese Kuomintang party in November 1943 that laid out a plan for postwar Asia. The ultimate outcomes of the conference established China as a new power, promising to return territories taken by Japan, including Taiwan, to China.
However, a controversial movie poster for the The Cairo Declaration featured Mao prominently and was accompanied by a trailer that opened with the chairman saying, “The task of communists around the world is to oppose fascism through struggle.” Chinese citizens and culture critics alike were quick to point out that the poster and trailer both falsely suggest that it was Mao who fought for Chinese interests at the conference, rather than Chiang.
In response, Twitter users and members of the Chinese social network Weibo created their own versions of the poster. In place of Mao, many crafty graphic artists photoshopped in the faces of political figures like North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Xi, along with those of every day citizens and even pop culture icons, such the yellow minions from the Despicable Me movie franchise. One online commenter stated, “Let Mao be a part of the conference, it’s not like the rest of our history is real anyway.”
Similarly, the preparation and aftermath of the Sept. 3 military parade in Beijing honoring the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II each garnered much criticism on social media. For weeks prior to the parade, factories were shut down and half of the city’s 5 million registered cars were banned from the roads in order to clear away the smog that famously makes China’s skies gray. Beijingers excitedly posted photos of the clear blue skies with the tag “parade blue,” which the government quickly censored on social media sites. Less than 24 hours later, the clear skies had given way again, causing one Weibo user to note, “The parade blue disappeared at one blow. […] I have been used to beautiful blue skies, now I have this sudden feeling of uneasiness.”
Yet the shutting down of factories and the ban on cars were not the only ways that Beijingers were inconvenienced for the parade, all mentions of which were also censored on social media. Residents were prohibited from watching the parade from their windows, going onto their balconies, having guests over, or leaving their apartments. In response, many were quick to point out that “even Hitler allowed people to watch military parades from their windows.”
The parade itself featured ballistic missiles, tanks, amphibious assault vehicles, drones, 200 fighter jets, and 12,000 troops, as well 70,000 doves and balloons that were released over Tiananmen Square. The huge display of military power contradicted Xi’s repeated promise that China’s economic rise to power will not threaten global security as well as his recent promise to shrink the military. “Xi is using the parade to lie to the Chinese people and the world, in particular, to the young people in China that the victory of the Sino-Japanese was led by the CCP,” said Cheng Ming, a political commentator based in the U.S., of the parade. “Party intellectuals are participating in a lying contest to prove that the CCP played a ‘crucial role’ in the anti-Japanese war under Xi’s instruction.”
The juxtaposition of fleetingly clear skies with the massive show of military power do not just aid in Xi’s revisionist history, but also in his rewriting of China’s reality. Pictures taken on that day show an idyllic day with a nearly cloudless sky punctuated by the intimidating presence of military personnel and equipment. The parade was not only an anti-Japanese show for the Chinese people, but also intended to paint an image around the globe that contradicts the media’s typical portrayal of China as a carbon-emitting polluter.
Additionally, a visit from the former Vice President of Taiwan Lien Chan, member of Kuomintang party, prompted criticism worldwide that his attendance at the parade would only serve as an endorsement of the rewritten role of the Chinese Communist Party in both wars. The former Vice Party Secretary for Lien’s party, Chang Rong-gong, defended Lien’s actions in the China Review News as a way to open a dialogue about both countries’ interpretations of the war.
Nonetheless, many Taiwanese felt betrayed by his visit and saw it as a validation of China’s new version of history that paints the CCP as the leading victor during the war and the Kuomintang as a secondary actor. In the months leading up to the 70th anniversary of the Cairo Conference, the CCP had been calling for the original Cairo Declaration to be finally carried out in articles and in a forum of academics and activists held in Beijing. Liang Guoyang, vice chairman of the All-China Federation of Taiwan Compatriots, stated that any attempts to advocate for “Taiwan independence” undermine the assertion from the declaration that Taiwan belongs to China.
Furthermore, after Lien lost an important election in 2000, his relationship with China has only grown more affectionate, which some critics say represents a means of retaliation for being voted out of office. Chen Ming-Fang, a professor in the department of Taiwanese literature at the Nation Cheng Chi University, stated that Lien’s attendance at a “brainwashing event” fulfills Lien’s own wishes to become “a stooge [for the Chinese Communist Party and] to see the parade with his master, although he knows this military parade is a threat to [the] Taiwanese and meant to alter history.”
China’s recent efforts to push its version of history along with the accompanying censored memes and other forms of expression on social media are just parts of a longer narrative. In an interview with Guernica magazine, novelist Emily Parker explained that, “Some people in China don’t look at freedom of speech as an abstract ideal, but more as a means to an end,” as a way to get justice. The issue is not that China works very hard to revise its history or that even seemingly innocuous things like commenting on the blue of the sky can lead to thousands of photos and posts being wiped off a social networking site.
Just as China is using the parade as a distraction from the realities of history and as a way to muster support for the Chinese Communist Party, the conversations being about just how obviously wrong their revisionist history is or how excessive their censorship efforts are distracts from the reason why freedom of speech is limited. At the end of the day, the Chinese people do not care for the false image of China that Xi is so eager to paint. They recognize the truth of their history and want their reality to be equally respected by their authorities.
Abby Shamray is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.