Multiple Choice Question: Who brought victory to the Sino-Japanese War 70 years ago? A. Kuomintang, B. The Chinese Communists, C. The United States, D. The Soviet Union.
If your answer does not in some way include B, then BAM! You are a historical nihilist, even though you might not have read a single word by Nietzsche, the German philosopher who elaborated on this important concept in the 19th century. He declared nihilism as a characteristic of the modern age and “a moment of the deepest self-reflection for humanity”. The “death of God” and the dissolution of Christianity as a singular source of truth deprive the world of meaning, intrinsic value and destiny.
But what has nihilism to do with the Kuomintang? This obviously perplexed a few serious philosophy scholars and historians who took pains to organize a seminar at Tongji University in Shanghai earlier this month. The seminar was titled “Nihilism and the End of History: a Dialogue between Philosophy and History”. A consensus coming of it was that “recent criticism on ‘historical nihilism’ has nothing to do with the academic sense of the word.”
The academicians were responding to a tide of attacks on “historical nihilism” largely waged by party publications and leftist opinion leaders. Their targets are very simple: anything that challenges the historical orthodox that depicts the Party as the decisive force in the Chinese people’s struggle for independence and liberation from suppression. It is basically a move against what they consider to be revisionist views of contemporary Chinese history, but for some curious reasons they adopt “nihilism” as the label for their target, probably just for the forcefulness of the word in Chinese (“xuwu“). In the past year, a few controversies surrounding the veracity of communist war-time heroism hammered the term into modern Chinese vocabulary. For instance, in April this year, a beverage company got harangued by conservative commentators for associating itself publicly with a Weibo personality who once compared a Korean War hero to “barbecue” (as party propaganda maintained that he endured being burned alive by an incendiary bomb in complete silence in order not to expose his comrades). The Communist Youth League’s official mouthpiece triumphantly declared at the time that “the consistent condemnation (of the company) from the netizens shows that the public is no longer swayed by the historical nihilism that uses the excuse of ‘freedom of speech’ to smear heroes.” But reality was far from “consistent condemnation.” Actually, the questioning of the “physiological feasibility” of that heroic act was so strong that official media even had to use the example of the 1963 self-immolation of the Vietnamese monk to establish its validity.
The crusade against “historical nihilism” met with a major setback this month when the cause suffered from unexpected friendly fire. A film commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II that sets its scene at the Cairo Conference of 1943 induced widespread astonishment by highlighting Chairman Mao in its publicity campaign. To be clear, the film itself does not put Mao in Cairo, as that would have been outright fabrication (It was Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek who represented China at the conference). But in its posters, the film’s PR team gave Mao an equal treatment as Roosevelt and Churchill, overshadowing Chiang. Criticism immediately ensued, some even from across the Taiwan Strait. Put on defense, the filmmaker responded by saying that the Cairo Conference was the result of the sacrifice of the entire Chinese population, and the Chinese Communists were surely an important part of it. Spurred by the unapologetic tone in the response, netizens made fun of it by photoshopping unrelated public figures onto the poster, claiming that they could all have legitimately been at the conference, the climax being the Kim Jong-un version of the poster.
Some left-leaning online commentators took a confrontational stance. One of them even declared that Mao’s blown-up role in the posters was a place he “deserved”. And if anyone had a problem with it, he should “win a war to make his point”. The winner-writes-history cynicism was blaring in this instance. Compared with their online comrades, commentators at the Global Times were much more worried that the backlash might give opponents of the anti-nihilism campaign excuse to discredit it entirely. They regarded the posters “inappropriate” and argued that it was unnecessary to arbitrarily link the Party with every episode of that war, even if its role in it should not be denied. They even suggested last minute modifications to the film if it contained undue elevation of Mao.
The campaign against historical nihilism and the anxiety about its undone both betray a sense of insecurity. The Party is deeply disturbed by the risk of losing its righteous place in history. It might have a point though, as its war-time record, like its currency now, is being depreciated not only by domestic liberals but also international observers. The Economist, in a recent editorial, just gave the credit of resisting the Japanese invasion completely to the Kuomintang.
The Chinese theater of World War II was messy and intricate. At any given point, the Kuomintang, the Communists, the Kuomintang traitors and the Japanese were all fighting each other. The Soviet Union was involved from the very early stage, supporting the Kuomintang government (not the Communists) for a substantial period of the eight-year war. When the Pacific War broke out, the United States upped its ante in China by subjecting its China-Burma-India theater commander, General Stilwell, under Chiang Kai-shek as his chief of staff. In this intertwined situation, any attempt to claim full credit for the victory against Japan would be challenging if not outright impossible. The Kuomintang enjoys an advantage in this race as it was the “legitimate” government at the time of the war. That’s why it was Chiang Kai-shek who appeared in Cairo, and the reason why most of the international aid of that time (including that from the Soviet Union) went to Kuomintang during the war. And truth be told that as the government, Kuomintang organized the country’s major defense against the Japanese, and its soldiers suffered epic sacrifices.
But nominal legitimacy can only get you so far. As a corrupt, crude and incompetent dictatorship, the Kuomintang regime was not without its fierce criticizers for its humiliating military defeats, its startling mismanagement of the economy, and the brutal ways it treated its own people. The horrifying conscription programs that brought as much death and fear as the war itself was widely noted even by biographers sympathetic of Chiang. The tragic famine of 1942, in Henan province, became a whole chapter in Theodore White and Annalee Jacoby’s influential book about that war (both were Time magazine’s China correspondents at that time), which showed to the American public the cold-blooded indifference of the Kuomintang government to the unbelievable suffering of the Chinese peasants. The book was written in 1946, when there was already widespread disillusion and discontent with the Kuomintang regime among US elites. But White and Jacoby’s account of the famine, which was based on first-hand personal experience, should still be read as an overall reflection of Kuomintang’s stage of decay at that time.
Within this context, where the Kuomintang’s real legitimacy was being contested, the Chinese Communists advanced their argument that they played a pivotal role in the fight against Japan. For one thing, their status as a partner against the Japanese invader was formally recognized by their 1937 “United Front” agreement with the Kuomintang, whereby they agreed to subject the Red Army under governmental line of command. That “partnership” proved to be fragile and unstable. Skirmishes (some of them quite bloody) between Kuomintang and Communist forces abounded in the years between 1937 and 1940, after which a new agreement had to be drawn which demarcated where both parties should operate (but mainly for the Communists). After that the Communists, and the millions of Chinese people living in the areas north of the Yellow River, were basically left on their own to bear the weight of Japanese savagery in that part of China. And in those years the Communists were the only protection that the people of North China could have. White and Jacoby estimated that at the peak of Japanese activity, forty percent of the Japanese military force in China was battling Communists. The estimation could have been influenced by both Communist and Kuomintang propaganda, but it is probably fair to say that Communist resistance to the Japanese invasion was not as trivial as some would perceive.
It is clear that the “nihilist” challenge that the Party faces today is partly fueled by dissatisfaction of its current rule. It is both a backfire of its own propaganda overkill (things such as the Cairo Declaration blunder) and an over-correction by romanticizing the China under Kuomintang’s reign. Lately, the “ROC Fever” (“ROC” stands for the Republic of China as opposed to the People’s Republic), which refers to a general nostalgia of the pre-communist China in some circles of the Chinese society, has become a cultural phenomenon. Part of it can also be attributed to the complete re-invention of the Kuomintang in Taiwan after the 1980s. Today’s Kuomintang is no longer the collection of reactionary warlords and capitalists that Chiang Kai-shek presided over 70 years ago. It has turned into a modern political party firmly committed to basic democratic values. One author even went so far as suggesting that the Kuomintang’s record in Taiwan proved Chiang to be the ultimate winner over Mao for his more superior political philosophy of Confucianism (“Mao won the battle, Chiang won the war.”) A relatively more positive light over today’s Kuomintang reinforces the feeling that the Communists “stole” the fruit of the WWII. In such an environment, the Party finds itself mired in an endless battle to defend once well-recognized historical “positions”.
George Orwell once famously said that “He who controls the past controls the future; He who controls the present controls the past.” A present with treacherous deep currents is making the past ever more slippery for the Party to hold on to. Much of the pain has been self-inflicted. In an article published last year, a PLA Major General explicitly criticizes past party propaganda about the Sino-Japanese War:
“In the past, our account of the War was often shaped by immediate political needs, which led to biases and exaggeration. Because of our post-war hostility towards the United States, and in order to highlight the power of ‘people’s war’, American victory in the Pacific was downplayed, while land mines and tunnels were depicted as the major weapons defeating the Japanese. After the Reform and Opening, mainland China proactively upheld Kuomintang’s role in the War. However, in the process some media outlets went too far by exaggerating the overall importance of the China theater in World War II. Even if this could somehow elevate the public’s spirit and pride, in the long run this would create distrust in such propaganda in general.”
So the real enemy is not so much “historical nihilism” but rather historical cynicism. Indeed, the victor CAN write history if he chooses to. But now he’s concerned that nobody gives a damn about what he has written.