Rewriting History: How Beijing uses KMT Histories to Forward Its Policy Objectives


Image: Xi Jinping Visits the Siping Battle Memorial Hall in Jilin Province, July 2020.


In recent months, Beijing has propagated two military histories for international and domestic ends involving its civil war archrival, the Kuomintang Party (KMT), which ruled China from the late 1920s until its defeat at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the late 1940s. Both histories pertain to the Second Sino Japanese War: one about a KMT regiment in the 1937 Battle of Shanghai and the other on the KMT armies that fought alongside the British in then colonial Burma. While the CCP has permitted discussion of KMT contributions to the Second Sino-Japanese War since as early as the 1980s, such histories must be careful not to challenge a major element of the party-state’s legitimacythe self-proclaimed central role played by the CCP in defeating Japan. General Secretary Xi Jinping has described any view of history that challenges the centrality of the CCP in modern China as “historical nihilism” (历史虚无主义). This concept encompasses both the history of the CCP and the CCP’s narrative on history, including seemingly innocuous topics like the history of the Qing Dynasty. Xi’s emphasis on resisting historical nihilism has prompted new laws, such as a ban on slandering China’s “heroes and martyrs.” Beijing’s continued willingness to break from a rigid view of the KMT’s role in the Second Sino-Japanese War, despite top-level pressures to resist historical nihilism, suggests that the Party feels confident in its ability to rewrite modern history to serve its own ends.


The Eight Hundred


A Chinese film released on 21 August 2020 called The Eight Hundred — currently 2020’s most successful global box office film — tells the story of several hundred KMT soldiers ordered to remain behind and defend a warehouse as a hold-out force after the broader defeat of Chinese forces in the 1937 Battle of Shanghai, which was one of the first major battles of the Second Sino-Japanese War. The film’s original release and showing at the 22nd Shanghai International Film Festival in the summer of 2019 were cancelled for “seemingly fall[ing] afoul of censorship.” Though no official reason was given for its cancellation, foreign observers noted a report on WeChat, which said the film “excessively glorified the Republic of China” and noted criticism the role of the Republic of China flag in the film, which is both the flag of the KMT and the current government of Taiwan. Such symbols might be especially poignant in the narrow context of the story told by The Eight Hundred: focusing solely on the Battle of Sihang Warehouse, the film is not able to narratively refocus on the contributions of Communist forces or otherwise mitigate the flag’s depictions.

Despite this rocky start, the film was eventually permitted for release after presumably making changes that are unknown to the public. Vocal criticisms of the film have not disappeared: after its August 2020 release, a negative review on non-authoritative, pro-CCP website Guancha.cn invoked historical nihilism in its criticism of the film. Nonetheless, beyond quietly tolerating the film, Chinese state media have praised The Eight Hundred since its August release. Direct references to the KMT are notably absent from much of the state media’s coverage. A 21 August article in the Global Times noted the role the film would have in exciting patriotic enthusiasm in viewers. On 26 August, Xinhua published an interview with the film’s cast members, who referred to their characters as heroes. A 21 August article on Guangming Online called the film a microcosm of the entire 14-year war [1] against Japan, “a model for patriotic education,” and positively compared the film to Wolf Warrior 2 for its deep ideological content and status as being a great work of art. According to CGTN, visits to the Sihang Warehouse Museum have exploded following the film’s release. CGTN coverage noted the comment of one Shanghai resident, in context of depiction of the ROC flag, that the soldiers were in fact “fighting for the building of the New China” (aka the People’s Republic of China) rather than the KMT’s cause. The sacrifices of KMT soldiers have been decontextualized by state media and recast in modern nationalist terms.


While it is not known how much of the original film was censored in order for the final version to be released, Beijing may have been partially motivated to change its position on The Eight Hundred because of major external changes since the summer of 2019. Following the uncontrolled spread of coronavirus , Beijing has demanded that the Chinese people sacrifice their normal lives in order to carry out strict lockdowns which have allowed China to overcome the pandemic. Beijing may view a film about the patriotic sacrifice of Chinese soldiers in the face of an insurmountable force as highly appropriate in this context. The film is not alone in this regard: coinciding with the 70th anniversary of Communist China’s intervention into the Korean War, Korean War drama The Sacrifice (金刚川), co-directed by The Eight Hundred director Guan Hu (管虎), was released in late October. Notably, this hotly anticipated, politically-acceptable drama has not overshadowed The Eight Hundred’s box office success: its opening weekend was only half as successful (USD 30 million versus 80 million) as The Eight Hundred’s, with an equally modest performance overall box office performance as of 15 November. While this difference may be unwelcome by the CCP, to their benefit, the potential utility of The Eight Hundred is not limited to mainland audiences. This past year has also witnessed the dramatic failure of pro-Mainland politicians in Taiwan, with KMT candidate and Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) losing both Taiwan’s presidential election and a recall vote, as well as Kaohsiung’s subsequent return to pro-Independence DPP control through a by-election. The same critical Guancha article notes that the KMT has previously propagandized the Battle of Sihang Warehouse in the 1970s. Beijing may view The Eight Hundred as one method to improve cross-strait relations by invoking a brave episode of KMT military history. The Eight Hundred is far from being the only KMT history employed by Beijing for the benefit of Beijing.


The Chinese Expeditionary Force


Beijing has also utilized the sacrifices of the KMT’s Chinese Expeditionary Force (CEF), which fought alongside British forces in colonial Burma against invading Imperial Japanese forces, to promote China’s ties to South and Southeast Asia. On 3 September, 2020 People’s Daily published a third page story on the Chinese Embassy in Myanmar’s remembrance ceremony for Chinese martyrs of the CEF who died in battle. The event was noted prominently on the Chinese Embassy in Myanmar’s website, which included a speech delivered by China’s Ambassador at the event. In his speech, the ambassador noted that when recalling the past, “China and Myanmar have been inseparably close and friends for a thousand years” and that the “martyrs’ sacrifice is immortal” and not forgotten. This year is not the first year that the PRC Embassy in Myanmar has invoked the CEF. China’s Ambassador in Myanmar commemorated the force in April 2019, November 2018, and as early as August 2005 according to the Embassy website. Commemoration of the force has not been limited to the context of Myanmar. In an interview with India’s Hindustan Times in January 2018, Kolkata Consulate General Ma Zhanwu expressed his wish for a CEF cemetery in India to be developed into a “global tourist destination” as the cemetery is a “silent witness of Indo-China friendship.” Despite Xi’s rise to power and subsequent directives against historical nihilism, Beijing has continued to propagate the sacrifices of the CEF abroad.


While the defenders of Sihang Warehouse and the CEF were both KMT forces, many details surrounding the CEF would logically make it even more objectionable to the CCP. The CEF was conceptualized by US General Joseph Stilwell, who proposed in the spring of 1942 to train 100,000 Chinese soldiers in Burma using US methods and equipment.[2] With Chiang Kai-shek’s approval, General Stilwell led the forces with the support of KMT officers Sun Li-jen (孫立人) and Liao Yaoxiang (廖耀湘).[3] It is important to note that like the modern People’s Republic of China, Chiang’s Republic of China did not have an independent national army; Chiang’s forces were subservient to the KMT political party (and would more or less remain so into the 1990s after Chiang’s retreat to Taiwan.)[4] Chiang used these political armies following the defeat of Japan to battle CCP armies. Both the New 1st Army and New 6th Army, commanded by Sun and Liao respectively, were involved with the initial capture of Siping, known as the Second Battle of Siping, in May 1946. The Fourth Battle of Siping a little over a year later would set the stage for Communist victory in Northeast China and by extension the annihilation of veteran units of the CEF. In October 1948, the CCP wiped out the New Sixth Army’s command, and imprisoned Liao.[5]


That Communist soldiers suffered at the hands of these veteran CEF armies has not been forgotten by Beijing. On July 22, 2020, Xi visited a memorial hall for the Siping Campaign in Jilin Province. While at the memorial, Xi noted that the “blood of martyrs of the revolution cast the success of the revolution” and that the people, party members, and cadres all must “study the party history of the CCP and New China’s history well.” Nevertheless, The PRC Embassy in Myanmar would continue to memorialize the CCP’s civil war opponents, with People’s Daily disseminating coverage of the Embassy’s event across China. In light of Xi’s explicit instructions to study CCP history and the sacrifices of revolutionary martyrs, the decision of Chinese diplomatic personnel in Myanmar to continue to memorialize the CEF is remarkable, especially upon consideration of the other options available to them to promote Sino-Myanmar relations.


Under CCP rule, China and Myanmar have been close partners, with long standing cordial relations across political generations. China and Myanmar also have significant historical ties which could be propagated for the same effect as propagation of the CEF. The decision of diplomats to memorialize the CEF may speak to China’s insecurity on the international stage, broadly noted by a variety of foreign observers in different contexts. Such officials may view memorializing the CEF as an important tool in legitimizing China’s claim of friendship through the ultimate sacrifices made by Chinese soldiers, regardless of political affiliation. Officials may feel emboldened to propagate seemingly taboo histories when telling them to less familiar foreign audiences, especially as memory of the war passes from living memory. By telling such a history themselves, officials may feel that they have greater control over the history they recall. After all, inconvenient details surrounding the CEF, such as its connections to the Chinese Civil War and the US, have not been noted in coverage of the Embassy’s memorial event.


Conclusion


The retelling and memorialization of these two KMT military histories might appear to challenge Xi Jinping’s orders against historical nihilism, yet they still have been permitted. Both KMT histories are purely KMT histories and not PRC histories; they cannot be easily spun into histories of the Communist Party or the United Front without great distortion. Instead, Beijing has pretended blue is red and willingly rejected the KMT-CCP dichotomy while rewriting these histories as histories of China rather than just KMT forces. These curated versions of the past are thus acceptable to Beijing and even useful in how they can forward Beijing’s diplomatic interests in South and Southeast Asia; promote nationalism in the wake of coronavirus; and potentially promote cross-Strait ties in a period of extreme weakness of Pro-Mainland political forces in Taiwan. To the CCP, the telling of history matters more on the intent of the teller rather than the actual history. Rather than being a symbol of its openness, Beijing’s use of these histories reflects its persistently authoritarian nature and cynical approach to truth, which it takes the liberty to define.

[1] In recent years, Beijing has asserted that the Second Sino-Japanese War actually began with the invasion and occupation of Manchuria in 1931, rather than the start of widespread hostilities in July 1937 following the Macro Polo Bridge incident. See: https://thediplomat.com/2017/01/why-did-china-add-6-years-to-the-second-sino-japanese-war/


[2] Edward L. Dreyer, “China at War: 1901-1949,” New York, NY, Longman Publishing, 1995, 271; Eric Setzekorn, “The Rise and Fall of an Officer Corps: The Republic of China Military, 1942-1955,” Norman, OK, University of Oklahoma Press, 2018, 61.


[3] “The Rise and Fall of an Officer Corps,” 61.


[4] “The Rise and Fall of an Officer Corps,” 36.


[5] Harold M. Tanner, “Where Chiang Kai-Shek Lost China: The Liao-Shen Campaign, 1948,” Bloomington, IN, Indiana University Press, 261; Liao’s counterpart Sun Li-jen was transferred to Taiwan shortly after the Second Battle of Siping after a highly critical interview with the press. See: “The Rise and Fall of an Officer Corps,” 90-92.

Nathanael Callan holds a BA from The George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, with a double major in Asian Studies and Chinese Language and Literature. He has studied Mandarin Chinese in Shanghai, Harbin, and Beijing. He currently works for Melian and previously worked for IntegrityRisk International.

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