How A Wartime Past Influences Today’s China

Historian Rann Mitter contrasts the Chinese Nationalists' and Communists' resistance to Japan during WWII on Jan. 12, 2010.

HONG KONG, January 12, 2010 - To fully understand China today, one must understand it's wartime past, according to Oxford University academic Rana Mitter. Speaking at the Asia Society Hong Kong Center, the Professor of the History and Politics of China said this is one of the underpinnings of the emerging superpower's status in the international community.

"Today's thrust towards a more global identity is much more based on an idea of international and domestic cooperation intertwined with each other. Therefore, cooperation rather than confrontation is at the center of the message being put forward," said Mitter.

He noted how the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, prompted by the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, put an end to a decade of modernization by Chiang Kai-Shek and his Nationalist government. The war forced the temporary relocation of the administration to Chongqing. "It was a city with a global significance. It was one of four great wartime capitals—Moscow, London, Washington—and Chongqing."

Mitter argued that renewed pride in Chongqing has manifested into how China now views itself. "They operate in a multi-polar world. They have a desire to enter international society, but are weary of neo-imperialism. They understand that economic interdependence is necessary, but also perceive threats from other powers and that China should take pride of place in the international community."

"In that context they see the experience of wartime Chongqing—when China played a global role as one of four Allied global powers—as an example of how China did cooperate in the past, did take part in a global progressive alliance against the forces of darkness, and for that reason again, it should be understood that China is capable of and should be encouraged to play such a role in the future."

Meanwhile, within China there has been a shift away from the belief that the Nationalist government's wartime effort was weak and ineffective. "That cold war reality began to thaw in the 1980s because Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek had died, and there was disillusionment with the Mao government. There is a radical rethinking in China that still goes on today—it is a long, positive assessment of a Nationalist, rather than a Communist, war effort."

Mitter underscored that revisionism has also contributed to U.S.-China relations. "Sino-American cooperation helped win a war. Two prominent Americans were central to the narrative of China's wartime resistance. Jimmy Stilwell, who served under Chiang Kai Shek, was forgotten during the Mao Zedong period. His house is now a museum and used as an example of how Sino-American cooperation in the past helped win the war. It's a very positive thing there. Also there is a memorial nearby to Claire Chennault. These two prominent Americans and their military roles are now very central to the wider narrative of China's wartime resistance."

Reported by Penny Tang, Asia Society Hong Kong Center