Tea Leaf Nation

‘The Anti-Japanese War Had Nothing to Do With Your Most Honorable Party’

Some Chinese may really hate Japan -- but that doesn't mean they love the Party.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

On July 7, Chinese awoke to a blitz of state media coverage commemorating the 77th anniversary of the Marco Polo Bridge incident, which marked the beginning of Japan’s invasion of China and a bloody eight-year war between the two nations. State media outlets featured interviews, historical footage, social media posts, and editorials reminding readers of the importance of history. Headlining most major news sites was a full transcript of President Xi Jinping’s scathing speech at a Marco Polo Bridge memorial ceremony in Beijing, in which he castigated Japanese attempts to whitewash history and praised the Chinese Communist Party for "shouldering the historical responsibility of national salvation" and the role it played in ousting the Japanese.

Playing to popular anti-Japanese sentiment has sometimes helped the ruling Chinese Communist Party maintain legitimacy. But while hatred of Japan runs deep and wide in China, some Chinese resent the party’s attempt to co-opt history to glorify itself. One Weibo post by party mouthpiece People’s Daily commemorating  the anniversary was re-tweeted over 50,000 times and garnered more then 8,300 comments. But far and away the most up-voted comment on this post read, "The anti-Japanese war had nothing to do with your most honorable party" — a reference to the officially ignored fact that the then ruling Nationalist Party led the wartime effort against Japan. State-run television broadcaster China Central Television also posted a series of wartime photos on its Weibo account. The most popular response read "Never forget that the legal government of China at that time was the Republic of China, and China’s supreme commander was Chiang Kai-shek," the wartime Nationalist leader now vilified by the party. Hu Xijin, outspoken chief editor of the fervently nationalist newspaper Global Times, defended historical memorializing in a widely read post on July 7 — but the top-rated comment blasted Hu for turning the Marco Polo Bridge incident into a "political tool," brandished whenever relations with Japan became especially strained.

While commemoration of important World War II anniversaries is nothing new in China, this year has seen a marked uptick in anti-Japanese memorializing. In February, the government announced two new anti-Japanese national holidays, the "War Against Japanese Aggression Victory Day" and "Nanjing Massacre Memorial Day," marking the December 1937 Japanese invasion of the southern city of Nanjing in which Japanese soldiers slaughtered an estimated 300,000 people. The increased anti-Japanese rhetoric is a reaction to long-simmering disputes over islands in the East China Sea. And Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent amendment to the island nation’s historically pacifist constitution — which will allow Japan to send troops abroad for the first time since World War II — has further heightened anxieties between the two countries.

Chinese authorities may hope to fan and then funnel the rising anti-Japanese sentiment to exert pressure on Japan, and to improve the party’s image. Some Chinese netizens, however, have their own message: Being anti-Japan doesn’t so easily translate into being pro-party.

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr

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