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China’s Victory Day Celebrations: Politics of War, Memory and Legitimacy

Avinash Godbole was Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • September 04, 2015

    When China celebrated Victory Day on Chang’an Avenue to commemorate Japan’s surrender on 3rd September, it hosted nearly 30 Heads of State besides about 1000 troops from 17 different countries. They joined approximately 10,000 Chinese soldiers in a grand parade at the historic Tiananmen Square. Beyond the theatrics, the grand event highlighted a great deal of politics over history, memories and its appropriation for legitimacy in the East Asian power struggle. In this event, India was represented by Minister of State for External Affairs, General V. K. Singh.

    In 2014, China had approved the celebration of two specific days to commemorate the national history before the liberation. It earmarked 3rd September as Victory Day for the first time and also declared it as a national holiday. Importantly, it was followed by the announcement of the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Day to remember the day when the massacres in Nanjing began in 1937, again observed for the first time on 13 December 2014. China’s decision to remember and celebrate the 70th anniversary on the scale on which it did is linked to the politics of memory, which feeds into the politics of legitimacy, domestically for the Communist Party of China (CPC) and regionally for the People’s Republic.

    The memory of humiliation is the pivotal driver of contemporary Chinese national identity under the CPC. Remembering the history of humiliation suits the communist party leadership in many ways. First, humiliation and the efforts to overcome it attest legitimacy to the party and its leadership and sacrifices made during the liberation as well as in the post-liberation era. Second, as seen in the recent past, popular nationalism associated with the memory of humiliation creates legitimacy for China’s assertive behaviour in the region. Specifically for Xi Jinping, the memory of humiliation gives credibility to domestic campaigns like anti-corruption that project fallen leaders as being anti-national and traitors. It is worth recalling that Xi Jinping’s first stop as the newly appointed Secretary General of the CPC was a museum exhibit called road to revival, which he had visited along with all the six colleagues of the Politburo Standing Committee of the CPC in November 2012. Remembering humiliation also connects with the idea of China Dream propagated by Xi Jinping since assuming power. China Dream represents the fulfilment of the CPC’s promise of comprehensive growth for the Chinese nation. At present, this celebration also helps divert domestic attention away from the ongoing economic crisis due to slowdown and the tumbling stock markets.

    At the regional level, the memory of humiliation embarrasses Japan for its war crimes and for what is perceived to be its not so clear apology for these crimes. Shinzo Abe recently delivered an address commemorating the 70th Anniversary of the end of World War II.1 This was a much-anticipated event given the history of Japanese aggression and growing regional expectations. However, what Abe said was seen as being short of a clear apology in China, South Korea and Singapore.2 Abe’s expression of “profound grief and eternal, sincere condolences” was considered as falling short of the Murayama statement of 1995 and the Koizumi statement of 2005. Murayama had used the expression “heartfelt apology” for past aggression and colonial rule, while Koizumi had also used a similar expression. Xinhua also accused Abe of trying to perform linguistic tricks, “attempting to please his right-wing base on the one hand and avoid further damage in Japan's ties with its neighbors on the other.”3

    Xi Jinping’s speech at the parade highlighted some of these points. Xi said, "(China’s) great triumph crushed the plot of the Japanese militarists to colonize and enslave China and put an end to China's national humiliation of suffering successive defeats at the hands of foreign aggressors in modern times.” He added that the commemoration of the 70th anniversary aims to “bear history in mind, honor all those who laid down their lives, cherish peace and open up the future.” Xi also used the occasion to say that “All countries should jointly uphold the international order and system underpinned by the purposes and principles of the UN Charter, build a new type of international relations featuring win-win cooperation…”4

    China’s Victory Day commemoration is also aimed at highlighting Japan’s remilitarisation under Abe and the vocal U.S. support for it. In its previous Victory Day celebrations in 2014, China had left the ball firmly in Japan’s court to help East and Southeast Asia overcome the agony of history and to set the right course for the future of regional relations and regional order. Xinhua quoted Xi Jinping as having said on that occasion that, “China will allow neither denial nor distortion of this history, nor any return to militarism. Facts are facts. Truth is truth. Any irresponsible words and actions that distort facts are in vain.”5

    Now with the perception that the recent Abe speech did not do enough to please the countries that were at the receiving end of Japanese aggression, the Victory Day commemoration can be seen as a criticism of Japanese remilitarisation. Given Abe’s refusal to reiterate the Murayama and Koizumi statements in letter and spirit, China did earn the right to remind Japan that it needed to do more.

    China was an important theatre in the Second World War, and Japan’s defeat was a significant event in eliminating imperialism in Asia. However, the way things have evolved since then, it appears that Japan is in denial mode about its role during that war while China is keen on gaining legitimacy for its regional ambitions by employing the memory of its humiliation and suffering in that conflict.

    Japan has not exactly reconciled with its role during World War II as seen from the outcomes of the Kitoka Committee that looked into the history and Japan’s future role in the region.6 Shinzo Abe or for that matter no mainstream party would support constant reiteration of apology especially after China had accepted the Murayama statement. This stance also suits the right-wing supporters of Abe who say that “the future generations who had nothing to do with the war should not be predestined to apologise.”7

    For its part, China is intent on isolating and delegitimising a remilitarising and not adequately apologetic Japan which could potentially challenge the reassertion of a China-centric Asian order.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India