The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is waging a battle to influence and control the narrative over history in Asia through propaganda and “thought management” (sixiang guanli). The primary objective is to shape how history is understood in the current geopolitical dynamics and political context.
To be sure, history in the region — especially related to the numerous wars fought in the 20th and 21st centuries — is fraught with political fault lines. Yet, this battle is less about the past and more about the future.
History is a critical front in shaping people’s thoughts through influencing their perceptions and beliefs about their national history and identity. It has been an emerging theater in the CCP’s United Front (tongyi zhanxian) efforts to co-opt its former nemesis, the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, KMT), and promote a common narrative against one of its principal external targets: Japan.
History of the United Front
The CCP uses “United Front” as a tool for political warfare, employing non-kinetic instruments to organize and mobilize non-CCP masses in pursuit of the party’s domestic and foreign policy objectives. In a declassified study conducted by the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency, it was described as a “technique for controlling, mobilizing, and utilizing non-Communist masses.”
Since the CCP was founded in 1921, the party has used United Front to establish a foothold among the masses, exploit conflicts within society to undermine the influence of its adversaries, defeat warlords, gain the support of the victims of Japanese imperial aggression, and aid in the seizure of state power.
The most well-known United Front campaigns in CCP history are the ones with the Nationalist Party. In alliances forged out of necessity, the KMT and CCP formally united forces at least twice to resist their common enemies prior to the formation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949: first, to expel imperialists and warlords in China, and then to resist invasion by the Imperial Japanese Army during the Second Sino-Japanese War.
Yet, the CCP’s United Fronts were not limited to collaboration with the KMT. They were also a tool that the CCP skillfully used to undermine KMT rule in China leading up to and during the Chinese civil war.
After 1949, the CCP turned the focus of its United Front activities towards subverting the KMT’s control of Taiwan. When Taiwan democratized from the 1980s, the focus of United Front began to shift to subverting Taiwan’s democratic system, which Beijing viewed as a threat to its ultimate objective of subjugating Taiwan under the PRC.
Since the mid-2000s, the CCP has been using United Front again, but this time to co-opt the KMT against their supposed “common enemies.”
The Second Sino-Japanese War was a watershed event that, historians generally agree, led to the Nationalist government’s defeat by the CCP in the second Chinese civil war (1946-1950). Concerned by Taiwan’s democracy — which gave birth to an overwhelming sense of a distinct identity among the population — the CCP has been engaged in a concerted effort since 2005 to re-assimilate the Nationalist Party into its political narrative.
A series of high-profile cross-Strait “academic” symposiums revisiting the Second Sino-Japanese War have been held on a frequent basis since the mid-2000s as part of this concerted effort to reframe the narrative on history, especially events involving the Communist and Nationalist parties during the Republican period.
These efforts were intended to forge a common and united narrative between the two parties. As recently as 2015, CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping proposed for the Chinese people on the two sides to jointly revise anti-Japanese history, and Beijing has been actively promoting greater awareness and understanding of the anti-Japanese war.
To understand their underlying motivations, a closer look at some of the key organizers is warranted, but not within the scope of this article.
Among the key organizers on China’s side include the Academy of History of Chinese Resistance Against Japanese Aggression, Guangxi Academy of Social Sciences, Ke Yi Publishing House, Nanjing University, and Nanjing Zhongtang Keji. On Taiwan’s side, the Memorial Association for the Chinese People’s Resistance Against Japanese Aggression, Taiwan History Education “Three Self” Movement Association, and the Chinese Integration Association participated, among others.
Battle at Marco Polo Bridge (2017)
In July 2017, the organizers held a conference in Nanjing, the former capital of the Republican government, titled “The Chinese People’s Anti-Japanese War History.” They invited the former premier of Taiwan and chief of general staff Hau Pei-tsun (b. 1919) to give the keynote address.
The event marked the 80th anniversary of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident. This relatively minor clash between a small regiment of the Nationalist Army and the Japanese Imperial Army from July 7 to 9, 1937 sparked what many war historians believe led to the second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945).
A state of hostility between China and Taiwan has existed since the end of the civil war. For decades, the CCP has propagated a state-led narrative that diluted the role of the Republican government in Chinese history. Yet, in this past decade, there has been an apparent opening up in the CCP’s official narrative on some parts of Chinese history involving the Nationalist party.
Battle of Wuhan (2018)
In August 2018, the Hubei provincial capital was chosen to host the follow-up event, marking the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Wuhan — one of the most significant and bloodiest battles in the war against Japanese aggression. Invited again to lead the Taiwan delegation, General Hau gave the keynote remarks.
In his speech, the general — who was one year shy of his centennial birthday — proclaimed: “Cooperation between the Communist Party of China and the Kuomintang Party played a very important role in winning the war…. Young people should know the history of the war and how China has risen to be a great power. Without the victory in the resistance war against Japanese aggression, there wouldn’t be the China of today.”
Battle of Kunlun Pass (2019)
In August 2019, the “Symposium on Passing on Chinese Anti-Japanese War History and Anti-War Spirit” opened in the historic Chinese city of Nanning, Guangxi Province, to commemorate another landmark battle of the Second Sino-Japanese War. More than 500 participants reportedly attended the politically-tinged event, including retired generals, scholars, and youths from both sides of the Taiwan Strait.
The conference location in Nanning was chosen to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Kunlun Pass on December 18, 1939. Speakers hoisted the battle as a symbol of the strength of Chinese unity, as the campaign was the first major victory of the Chinese army since the Battle of Wuhan.
‘Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation’
Battle-hardened retired general Hau — who was the commander of the 9th Infantry Division from 1958 to 1961 — presided over the second Taiwan Strait Crisis that involved the shelling of Kinmen island by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in 1958. Yet, in recent years Hau has been a frequent participant in these cross-Strait forums promoting a united front between the KMT and the CCP.
In 2014, at a conference celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Japanese surrender in World War II hosted by an organization called New China Youth, Hau stated: “Taiwan’s future is the Republic of China’s future. The Republic of China’s future will be decided by all Chinese people.”
Hau headlined another event in 2016, held in Washington, DC, focused on promoting a common narrative between Nationalist and Communist forces in fighting against the Japanese. The latter conference, entitled “A War to Remember — United Chinese Effort Against Japanese Invasion,” was hosted by the legally-troubled China Energy Fund Committee, with ties to the organization formerly known as the General Political Department.
In his 2017 keynote remarks in Nanjing, General Hau declared that the victory against the Japanese in World War II is the “shared glory” of both the Nationalists and the Communists.
While seeking to forge a common political narrative on modern Chinese history, Hau noted five principles to guide studies of the Sino-Japanese war:
First, it must stand on the side of the Chinese nation, not on the side of a particular party or person.
Second, it must stand on the side of academic enlightenment, and not be influenced by any political sympathies.
Third, it must stand on a strategic level.
Fourth, it must stand as a neutral observer, and use the perspective of younger generations to understand the truth of history.
Fifth, it must stand on the side of its influence on global human peace in understanding the relationship between the resistance to Japanese aggression and World War II.
The comments of another senior Chinese official headlining one of these events was more telling of the CCP’s intent. The deputy director of the PRC State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office, Long Mingbiao, criticized so-called “Taiwan independence forces,” calling out the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) for promoting “Taiwan independence activities to de-Sinicize [Taiwan].’
He accused Taiwan’s DPP of “beautifying Japanese colonial rule...and [being] anti-Chinese accomplices with Western countries seeking to contain China.” Then he explicitly mentioned that the purpose of the conference was to bring together friends from all walks of life, on both sides of the Strait, to jointly carry forward the spirit of the war of resistance against Japan, unite and work together at the crucial moment of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”
Author: Russell Hsiao