Your womb, my history

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Like a vehicle losing control, a recent debate about legalizing surrogacy suddenly swerved and crashed into the carefully guarded space of post-1949 Chinese history, creating an opening that competing camps of online commentary vied to control. 

Amid the festive atmosphere of the Chinese New Year in early Feb, People’s Daily carried a largely bland piece in one of its less important sections. As the third installment in a series reviewing the implementation of the two-children policy (China eased its decades old one-child policy in a historic move to address the pressing demographic challenge in 2016), the piece discussed the difficulties facing many aging Chinese couples seeking to have a second child. At the end of the article, the author entertained the possibility of legalizing surrogacy in China, which so far has been strictly banned.

Acknowledging the controversial nature of such a proposal, the author advocated caution in the hypothetical easing. Only non-commercial, voluntary surrogacy should be allowed to avoid  spawning a for-profit industry. 

But the mere fact that People’s Daily mused about such a possibility struck a nerve with many who feared the ethical and legal mess that such a move would cause. Global Times, the market-oriented offspring publication of People’s Daily Group, in a curious case of rebellion, openly objected to the idea by citing situations in India and the US, where surrogacy, legalized or not, led to consequences that harmed the surrogate mothers, who were often in a disadvantage in such deals, and the children they bore.

The feminist argument was prominent in this debate from the very beginning. In an impromptu poll on Weibo initiated by a feminist outlet, a majority of participants expressed concern about the violation of women’s rights if surrogacy were green-lighted in China. People feared that women would be forced into the business against their will. An apocalyptic picture emerged in the discussion of poor girls kidnapped and kept in captivity to serve as surrogacy machines in  a “reproduction sweatshop”, even though doing so would clearly violate China’s criminal code with or without legalized surrogacy.

China’s population policies have been dogged by increasingly strident criticism from feminists these days. Major policy moves such as the abandoning of the one-child policy, hailed elsewhere as an enlightened development, met with cynical response domestically as the state’s  attempt to manipulate women’s wombs to correct its own demographic blunders. The bizarre scenes on the local level, where certain local governments pressured employees to have a second child in order to fulfill policy goals, further embittered advocates who resented the perceived “instrumentalization” of women by the state to achieve social objectives.

This line of thinking apparently colored the online response to the People’s Daily article. What’s unexpected was how far it went to threaten the very legitimacy of the Party. When Weibo user Huangqingjiao, a playwright, posted her comment about legalizing surrogacy, she reached back all the way to the early history of the People’s Republic, trying to make the case that the regime had a history of treating women as reproductive machines. “Whether it’s forcing people to have a second child, or legalizing surrogacy, what’s more horrible than these decisions is the icy logic behind them, the logic that treats women as mere items.”  She brought up the campaign to recruit tens of thousands of young women to go to Xinjiang, in the far west of China, in the years immediately following the establishment of Communist China in 1949. The invincible People’s Liberation Army, directed by the Party’s top leadership to settle down permanently to consolidate control of this frontier region, had to confront an insurmountable problem: the daunting male-to-female ratio. Not surprisingly, most of the troops were men. Many of them had endured years of brutal battles, first with the Japanese and then with the Kuomintang in a devastating civil war. Having passed their prime time for forming families, those officers and soldiers were put off by the prospect of an extended single life in a barren land. Some of them formally applied to be dismissed, so that they could return home and get married. “The issue of wives”, as General Wang Zhen put in in his letter to a colleague, “has reached to a point that it affects morale of the troops and the stability of Xinjiang.”

A massive campaign rolled out across the country to recruit women to Xinjiang. Responding to the call to build New China and the opportunity to contribute as independent, empowered individuals, tens of thousands of female students, housewives and peasants flocked to recruitment stations, committing themselves to a noble cause.

Very few of them were aware that their roles as girlfriends, wives and mothers were probably more valued by the state at that time. Some of them started to feel the “heat” after settling down in work units freshly set up in the western province. “Match-makers” were dispatched to “work on their minds”, trying to convince the girls that marriage was for the greater good of a prosperous Xinjiang. In certain cases, attempts of persuasion bordered on coercion, causing a fair amount of stress among those women (some of them became mentally unstable). The situation alarmed the leadership, which in the end directed those “mind workers” to soften their approach and honor the freedom of marriage, a concept that had just been enshrined in the People’s Republic’s new marital law.

The history of this campaign is well-documented. Government files, news reports and academic papers exist to preserve an important part of the Party’s early efforts to govern a newly seized region. Huangqingjiao got a glimpse of the history in a TV documentary called “Eight thousand Hunan girls go to Tianshan”, zooming in on one leg of that campaign in Hunan province. Her interpretation of their fate as sheer tragedy shaped how many netizens viewed this history in particular and the Party’s treatment of women in general.

The more reserved version of such a view lamented the powerlessness of individuals before the iron wheel of state-building. The extreme version went as far as equating the females with “comfort women”, sexual slaves kept by the Japanese military during World War II.

Ironically, what was presented as being sympathetic was taken as an insult by the descendants of the very women to whom the sympathy was directed. “My grandparents dedicated their youth to the frontier. They fell in love and got married of their own free will. Those ignorant of the Xinjiang construction corps should quit denigrating our predecessors! ” snapped one Weibo user. The local police of Altay, a place in the north tip of Xinjiang, sent out an angry Weibo post accusing Huangqingjiao of spreading lies. “The first generation of Xinjiang’s constructors do not deserve such assault… Without their sacrifice, how could someone like Huangqingjiao enjoy her leisure and peace?”

If the anger was directed at the lack of appreciation for those women’s agency, they might have a point. The “comfort women” comment was particularly insensitive in this regard. Studies looking closely at that period depicted a nuanced picture of those females “negotiating” their existence in an environment at once liberating and suppressing. Many of them came from abject backgrounds that were even harsher to women of their generation. They escaped extreme poverty and the shackles of traditional Chinese society to seek education and work in a new environment. Most of them fulfilled such dreams by becoming nurses, teachers and office workers in the PLA-turned Xinjiang Construction Corps. And they used this newfound independence to push back at the “matchmaking” attempts that were seen as inconsistent with New China’s vision of women’s liberation. Some of them in the end accepted “Party arranged marriages” not because they passively bowed to fate, but rather reconciled their devotion to the country with personal life choices. 

Yet the indignation could also have  originated from a misplaced stigma about women with “impure” sexual experiences, even if coerced. Therefore, a woman’s misery of forced marriage could be taken as disgraceful on the side of the female. And people chose to defend her by insisting that they were “clean”(qingbai).

More is at stake than the women’s reputation. Modern Chinese history, particularly the part after 1949, has become a minefield. Barbed wires are being erected around the orthodox stories of liberation and progress. And trespassers will be punished. The Party’s online propaganda guards were quickly deployed to contain the rising tide of questioning. The Global Times editorial put this episode in the context of “rising historical nihilism” in recent years. Trying to be seen as fair, it declared Huangqingjiao’s Weibo post as an “inadvertent” offense, while warning that more sinister attacks of the sacred narrative are being propounded all over the Internet by those with ulterior “political motives”. “The history of New China is a history with capital H. The grandiose heroism of those involved cannot be judged by the petty bourgeois of today. However, even a great history will unavoidably involve personal misfortunes and miseries. Nevertheless, the mainstream sentiment among those females was one of pride and dignity, not of frustration and regret.”

But who represents “mainstream” and who are those individuals to be brushed aside as outliers? Anticipating questions like this, defenders of that history felt urged to protect “collectivism” against the assault of “individualism”, which they regarded as a luxury for those struggling in Xinjiang at that time. Their words can be vituperative at times, claiming that the “sacrifice of first generation Xinjiang constructors do not need the disgusting ‘sympathy’ from modern whores who only ask what the country can do for them.”

Those who defended the collectivist era maintained that personal sacrifices and devotion of that generation laid the foundation for the economic boom that followed the end of Mao’s reign over China. The buildup of basic industries and the accumulation of “demographic dividends”, the abundance of low cost labor, helped launch the Chinese economy into a sustained three-decade growth trajectory that became the envy of many other countries. And younger generations who enjoy the fruits of development should at least be grateful to their predecessors.

If gratitude is too much to ask for, an empathetic understanding is what many in the middle were suggesting. The ethics of a society, particularly those concerning personal rights, evolve over time, and it is probably unfair for today’s feminists to judge the 1950s using their value systems. The necessity of resettling hundreds of thousands of troops in the far west had the leaders’ hands tied at that time, who were more than aware of communist China’s promise of equality for women. Some argued that women going to Xinjiang in those years might have seen a “net improvement” of their situation by escaping their backward, poverty-stricken rural homes, and that the campaign should be more properly seen as a massive “blind dating event“, where the suppressed women of “old China” met a relatively well-regarded and well-paid group of young males, PLA officers.

More experienced observers noted the fact that this was not the first time that the history of “eight thousand Hunanese women” caused a stir in Chinese society. In the 1980s and 1990s, when materials about the buried memory resurfaced, there was a healthy discussion about the human dimension of the “grand history”. The experience was demystifying and even liberating for some: the “minority” who did feel hurt by that campaign were finally able to have their voices heard. Unfortunately, the “honest and pragmatic” approach to that history has been replaced by a much more ideologically rigid one of today, remarked commentator Song Zhibiao. The now familiar frame of “anti-historical nihilism” immediately trumped any attempt to reopen the history for critical review, and the otherwise debate-savvy feminists quickly retreated from their confrontational stance. “A debate about history has itself become part of Chinese history,” observed Song.

RELATED READING ON THIS BLOG: Down with the Nihilists!

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The River

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A great river flows, its waves wide and calm
Wind blows through rice flowers, bearing fragrance to both shores
My family lives right there by the water
I am used to hearing the punters’ call
And seeing the white sails on the boats

This is the beautiful Motherland
This is the place where I grew up
On this expansive stretch of land
Everywhere there is wonderful scenery to behold 

How flower-like are the young ladies
How big and determined are the hearts of the young men
In order to usher in a new era
They’ve woken the sleeping mountains
And changed the face of the river

This is the heroic Motherland
This is the place where I grew up
On this stretch of ancient land
There is youthful vigor everywhere

Great mountains, great rivers, a great land
Every road is broad and wide
If friends come, there is fine wine
But if the wolves come
Those who greet them have hunting guns

This is the mighty Motherland
This is the place where I grew up
On this stretch of warm and friendly land
There is peaceful sunshine everywhere

(Translation from Wikipedia)

In a University of Hong Kong (HKU) auditorium full of attentive listeners, a question was asked about “the first song in your life that inspires you”.  “Frank Sinatra’s My Way,” answered one man sitting in the front row. “What about you?” “It should be a song that senior students taught me in college, My Motherland,” said the man next to him.

The one asking the question was Lung Ying-tai, one of the best-known Taiwanese intellectuals of today and a former Culture Minister. The occasion was a “Hall of Wisdom” lecture she was giving about the power of songs in transcending time and history. The second respondent was Dr. Albert Chau, Vice President of Hong Kong Baptist University, a scholar who attended HKU in the 1970s. The song he mentioned was from the soundtrack of a 1956 Chinese movie that portrayed the China’s heroic efforts at the Battle of Triangle Hill in the Korean War.

The answer acted like an electric current that electrified the air in the room. The chemistry in the atmosphere suddenly became interesting. There was giggling in the audience. Lung, seemingly unaware of the song, asked how it sounded like. After a brief, awkward moment of silence, a few in the audience began to sing, in a hesitant, humming voice. “A great river flows, its waves wide and calm…” More people joined in and in no time it became a resounding chorus. “This is the beautiful Motherland. This is the place where I grew up.” On the stage, Lung watched the scene with curiosity. She laughed profusely, and then encouraged everyone to clap for those who were singing. The episode ended in a largely friendly atmosphere.

Two months later, when video clips of this exchange emerged on the Internet, those involved, particularly Lung Ying-tai, found themselves in a much less congenial environment.

“A mysterious embarrassment”(谜之尴尬), as nationalist outlets such as Guancha described the incident. Other outlets were even more blatant: “a slap on the face.”(打脸) They presented Lung’s response as a sign of humiliation rather than just humorous play-along, implying that Chau’s choice of the song served as a direct refute of Lung’s preaching.

In recent years, some people on the mainland have grown increasingly critical of Lung’s signature message of a liberal humanism, the elevation of fundamental human values ABOVE political disputes. Her declaration of “a disinterest in the rise of a great nation but a deep concern for the dignity of its small civilians” once won her applause across the Taiwan Strait, but has since met with ever stronger pushback. The occasion provides those who detest Lung an opportunity to get it even.

1949: River and Strait

Year 1949 was a defining watershed of Chinese history and of the fate of millions of Chinese families. As the People’s Liberation Army crossed the majestic Yangtze River with thousands of hired junks and pressed against Kuomintang’s last strongholds south of the river bank, Nanjing (the capital) and Shanghai, millions started their humiliating retreat across the Taiwan Strait. The Republic of China, which endured years of gruesome war against the Japanese fascists, was driven to exile not only by the militarily more capable Communists, but more importantly, by the infinite appeal of a People’s Republic serving the starved and embittered mass fed up with Kuomintang’s corrupt rule.

The river of history has diverged, irreversibly, since then. And it became a theme that writers such as Lung, herself the offspring of a Kuomintang official displaced to Taiwan, explore. In her Hong Kong lecture, she mentioned the ancient tunes of Silangtanmu (“The fourth son visiting his mother”) and the tender love songs written by Chen Gexin, a songwriter who earned his reputation in Shanghai in the 1930s. For the generation of Lung’s parents, the songs represented a past and a home that were forever gone. They exposed the wounds of those severed from homeland, and through their soothing tunes, healed the homesick souls.

Lung also touched on other types of songs. Those are songs with an overt political message. Jokingly, she referred to the kind of Kuomintang propaganda songs that she as kid was taught to sing: “Fight the communists! Eradicate Zhu (De) and Mao (Zedong)! Kill the collaborationists!”

There was no ambiguity as to what kind of songs Lung held to be superior. Those that appeal to the fundamental human emotions: the connection between mother and song, the love of men and women, are especially powerful when they imply a kind of subtle protest against the dehumanizing force of politics. It is in this line of thinking that she brought up the tragic fate of Chen Gexin, the songwriter whose songs warmed the tortured hearts of so many drifters in Taiwan, who himself remained in the mainland and was later sent to a labor camp like many of his peers in art and literary circles. It is seen as a case of politics devouring those who were simply being human, which for an intellectual like Long, represents what’s fundamentally wrong about political struggles.(Though there is evidence of Chen collaborating with the Japanese during the war.)

Her most famous book in the Chinese-speaking world, Great River and Sea: 1949, expands on essentially the same theme. By recreating the separations and suffering caused by the turmoil of the last year of the Chinese civil war, she tries to transcend party politics that have defined the dynamics between both sides of the Taiwan Strait by appealing to the shared values of family, filial piety and love. “Is there really a winner of the civil war? Everyone is a loser in that war. And I’m proud of being a loser’s daughter,” she writes in the preface of the book.

This intellectual tendency may explain why, at that very moment, Lung was caught a bit off guard. “My motherland” surely doesn’t fit into her category of humanizing songs above politics. But she might have also underestimated the song’s transcending power, a different kind. In her written response to the controversy, published by Southern Weekly, she admitted that her first reaction when hearing Chau’s answer was that “this was a Red Song (红歌)”, which implies cheap communist propaganda. Even though she maintained that she immediately understood what Chau meant by bringing up the song, a reminiscence of a special period in contemporary Hong Kong history, when young students looked at socialist China as an inspiring alternative to corrupt colonial rule, she somewhat downplayed the significance of the spontaneous chorus in the auditorium, suggesting that it would be a mistake to try and derive too much from that moment: “The river was just a river.”

The mother nation complex

For Lung’s more serious critics on the mainland, who are willing to give her the credit of handling the situation with grace, her major problem is the almost blind universalism that wipes out any meaning in the country’s historical struggles of the early 20th century. As scholar Liu Yang puts it in his piercing criticism, Lung’s attempt to depoliticize those songs she mentioned in her lecture erases the clear moral values originally imbued in them. “(For something as universal as “death”, there is a difference between the death of a murderer and that of a martyr… Without the sacrifice of the men and women that defend the nation, the tranquility of the river would not have be cherished this much.”

A similar critique can be found about her book on the civil war. It argues that her emphasis of the suffering and the “human cost” of the civil war blurs the historical responsibility of the Kuomintang government and belittles the sacrifice of those who fought in the Chinese revolution, as if it was a value-free natural disaster.

Liu attributes Lung’s intellectual leaning to her “confused” identity: the lack of a fully-grounded national affiliation pushed Taiwanese intellectuals such as Lung to embrace a “supra-national” set of universal values, which allows them to declare themselves “world citizens” and build their cultural confidence around the assumed “end of history”: they are on the right side of a lineal progression towards a liberal end-state. But the “return of history” in recent years and the reemergence of religious, racial and class strife globally make her ahistorical treatment of themes such as human suffering “embarrassingly inadequate.”

World citizen or not, it is pretty clear that at the very moment, there was a discernible disconnection between Lung Ying-tai and Albert Chau. The song got lost in the narrative that Lung painstakingly constructed at the lecture and became a disruptive outlier. And Lung’s dismissal of its significance not only met with criticism from the mainland, but also invited a pushback from within Hong Kong.

Even though Prof. Chau himself never came out to explain his choice of the song, those who are familiar with the Hong Kong of his student years provided their interpretation of what happened. They believe that by invoking the song, Chau was paying tribute to the “Fiery Red years” of the 1970s, where young students of Hong Kong, disappointed by the corrupt colonial rule of the British, turned to the Motherland for inspiration. The northward affection was a combination of a successful “united front” campaign waged by the communist government on the mainland and a genuine longing for a national identity that brought pride and dignity. Commentators brought up almost forgotten historical events such as the 1971 Hong Kong student protest against the United States for attempting to “return” the Diaoyu Island to Japan along with Okinawa and the subsequent tour of a Hong Kong student delegation in the mainland, carefully organized by the Chinese government to impress them with the achievements of the socialist state (in the middle of the Cultural Revolution). The tour successfully ignited the imagination of Hong Kong’s youth, still under the influence of leftist student movements everywhere in the world, about the possibilities of a socialist alternative to capitalist colonialism. In its aftermath, the Hong Kong student movement decisively oriented itself to the motherland, and one of its major achievements was the establishment of Chinese as official language in the British colony.

As a University of Hong Kong student of the class of 1979, Chow was possibly involved in the last wave of student activism of that era. Later on, a booming local economy and the mainland’s abandonment of a revolutionary position by itself would mute much of the movement’s core appeal.

Almost 40 years later, the buried memory of that decade surfaced again on the Chinese Internet with a new found relevance. When Luwei Rose Luqiu, a well-known former TV journalist from Hong Kong, cited those events in a Weibo post, she clearly took aim at a more recent sentiment on the mainland: “Some of those students were disheartened after what happened in 1989. The rest of them were considered ‘unpatriotic’ for their participation in the Umbrella Movement. But they continued to love the country by their own principles.” There is bitterness in such response: when netizens and media on the mainland hailed Chau’s act of national solidarity, they were probably unaware of where his national imagination came from and whether it’s identical with what’s broadly understood as patriotism by the mainlanders, just as the democratic ideals manifested in Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement were widely perceived as separatist impulses on the mainland. Other commentators built on Luqiu’s historical recollection and recounted the continued tradition of Hong Kong’s college students to orient themselves toward the motherland in the 1990s. At that time, students organized reading groups that brought in high school students to discuss the future of Hong Kong and of the motherland, “reading for the progress of history and the rise of China.”

This is a kind of complex that Lung Ying-tai probably didn’t fully grasp. The moment she branded “My Motherland” a “red song”, she underestimated the emotional appeal of those simple lyrics. As people pointed out, “red songs” typically referred to those created during the Communist Party’s Yan’an years (when it was a rebel government conducting socialist experiments in a mountainous enclave) and later during the Cultural Revolution. In both periods, songs were often overtly propagandist, unabashedly praising the Party or Mao himself. But “My Motherland” is different. Written in year 1956 as an interlude in a Korean War themed movie, its expansive lyrics transcend the war and the politics of its time. Rather, it speaks to the very fundamental aspiration of the Chinese people, who at that time, had barely emerged from the decades of turmoil and humiliation that preceded the founding of the People’s Republic. The folk song style (which the song writer borrowed from popular tunes of the early 1950s), the idyllic image of the scenery along the “big river” (which was based on the Yangtze River) and the overall mood of confidence and pride expressed in the song reflect the Zeitgeist of a newly built country finally able to defend itself. Despite the disastrous years that followed, the spirit of the song never stopped inspiring those who believe in national rejuvenation.

On Weibo, people also reflected on the ironic fate of the song in China, further complicating the categorization of this communist era oeuvre as pure propaganda. As one commentator recalled, the song, along with others that were not blatantly “revolutionary” in their messages, were banned during the Culture Revolution. Its creators, including the director of the Korean War movie, were persecuted as “Rightist elements”.

 

All those nuances were either lost or muted in that October encounter in Hong Kong. Lung Ying-tai could not immediately “get” Albert Chau’s spontaneous expression of his affection for the “motherland”. Nor was the complexity of a Hong Kong professor’s national aspirations fully understood by a mainland audience who hailed it as a rejection of Lung’s universalist message. Rather unfortunately, Luqiu’s account was met with another round of bickering about the legitimacy of the Umbrella Movement, a sign of deep-rooted division between today’s Hong Kong and the Mainland. The situation made some lament the “lack of shared assumptions for dialogue”.

If history is indeed a river, it seems that the people of Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China have each drifted on different rivers for too long. Even with the best intention and an openness for conversation, they find themselves unable to step into the same river anymore.

Down with the Nihilists!

Cairo

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.