China's War with Japan 1937-45 by Rana Mitter: Fragments of other histories beginning to emerge

The scale of suffering in China during the Second World War was unimaginable. Yet China did not submit, and it has only been since the 1980s that fragments of other histories have started to emerge.

China’s War with Japan 1937-45
Rana Mitter
Allen Lane, 480pp, £25

The official history of China, much rewritten in recent times, is full of questionable propositions. Important among them is the assertion that China’s contemporary attitudes are determined by a century of “national humiliation” at the hands of foreigners – from the mid-19th century until the victory of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the civil war in 1949.

China certainly suffered the aggression of upstart powers, including Britain, which was intent on trade. When trade was refused, conflict followed. Yet, for the most part, the national response to foreign incursion was less a sense of humiliation than a painful reflection on what had gone wrong with a once mighty country and a search for modernising options that might restore its power.

It was not until China lost the first Sino- Japanese war in 1895 that the word humiliation first appeared in this context. China regarded its smaller neighbours as tributary states. To be annoyed by western barbarians was one thing; to lose a war against the “northern dwarves”, as China’s president Chiang Kai-shek once described the Japanese in his diaries, was quite another.

The humiliation of the defeat in 1895 was revisited in 1919, when the post-First World War settlement handed German concessions in China to Japan, triggering public outrage and a reform movement that was to touch every aspect of Chinese life. Even then, as Rana Mitter points out in this comprehensive history, Japan was viewed with resentment and respect: Chinese students flocked to Japan to study, seeking the key to its swift modernisation. They included Chiang, the future leader of the Nationalist Party (KMT); Wang Jingwei, who would lead the puppet regime in Nanjing – the Chinese equivalent of Vichy, which lasted from 1940 until Japan’s defeat; and Sun Yat-sen, regarded by both the Nationalists and the Communists as the father of the Chinese Revolution of 1911.

These events were the backdrop to the second Sino-Japanese war, which began with the Marco Polo Bridge incident in 1937 and ended with Japan’s surrender in 1945. China’s long resistance to Japan’s occupation was to shape it profoundly. Mitter has done an important service both in pulling together the complex narrative threads of this period and in reminding readers of China’s vital and largely neglected contribution to the Allied war effort.

The war displaced 90 million Chinese from central and east China to the remote interior. The Nationalists went to Chongqing, in Si - chuan, a city defenceless against Japanese bombing. The Communists settled in the remote northern town of Yan’an, where the founding myths of Chinese Communism were forged. The displacement broke down social barriers and geographic loyalties, while resistance to the invader helped to forge a sense of nationhood out of the fragmented, post-imperial state.

All three regimes, the CCP, the KMT and Wang’s puppet government in Nanjing, ran ruthless secret police and terror operations, fascinatingly described here. The Communist operation was scaled up to national-level terror after 1949 but Mitter raises the question of how oppressive the others might have been in the long run.

 Because Chiang fought the Japanese in China, the Allies did not have to. Had Japan not been tied down in an eight-year war in China, half a million Japanese troops would have been available to fight the war in the Pacific, with potentially different results. And had the Nationalists not been fighting the Japanese, the Chinese civil war could well have taken place much earlier – also, potentially, with different results.

Mao Zedong had reason to be grateful to the Japanese, especially since the victorious CCP got to write the official histories, in which the Communists became the heroes of the anti-Japanese resistance and the KMT’s effort was written out. In reality, Mitter writes, Mao spent much of the war reading.

The scale of suffering in China is beyond imagining: the estimated ten to 12 million dead included victims of the floods in Henan when Chiang ordered the breach of the Huang He River’s levees to cover his desperate retreat, the victims of famine and Japanese bombing and the destruction of a Chinese force of 300,000 in three weeks in the last stages of the war. Yet China did not submit and Mitter gives credit to the often derided Chiang. China began the war as a weak and semi-colonised state and ended it with the promise of a seat in the Security Council of the newly formed UN.

In China, the story faded from official discourse as Mao directed national hostility to the KMT regime in Taiwan and to Soviet revisionism. It was not until the 1980s that fragments of other histories began to emerge. Today, a rash of atrocity museums and growing tensions in the East China Sea are inflaming popular memory. In international narratives, China’s effort was submerged in the new east-Asian configuration in which Japan became a key US ally and Mao’s China a new enemy. Mitter’s excellent history tells us why we need to remember it.

Chinese soldiers depicted fighting with Japanese troops during World War II. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage