China’s struggle vital for Allied victory

Source:Global Times Published: 2015-9-6 19:03:01

Editor's Note:

China's military parade on September 3, celebrating the 70th anniversary of global victory in WWII, drew some attention from the West but little discussion of China's role in the war. Has China's contribution been undervalued?  What role does historical memory play in Asia and Europe today? Global Times (GT) UK correspondent Sun Wei interviewed Rana Mitter (Mitter), director of University of Oxford China Centre, on China and the war.

Rana Mitter Photo: Sun Wei/GT

GT: Your book Forgotten Ally reminds the world of China's sacrifices in WWII that are often ignored in Western narratives. In recent years, Western and Chinese historians have increasingly recognized China's role in WWII. But what about the general public?

Mitter: I don't think that the Western public understands enough about China's sacrifices and contributions in WWII. It's deeply important that we understand more about that period of history. That's one of the reasons why I wrote my book on China's war with Japan.

When we think about why China was significant in the global war, it's important to look at some specific moments. For instance, if you think about 1938, one year after the war broke out at the Lugouqiao on July 7, 1937 (the Marco Polo Bridge Incident), most Westerners don't even remember this was part of WWII, because for Europeans, the war began in 1939.

But think about the alternative, supposing China in 1938 had surrendered to the Japanese, which many people including some diplomats thought it was quite likely at that moment, it would have become part of the Japanese Empire. Then there might have been no chance for Europe to combine with the war in Asia, because at that time, only China was resisting Japanese invasion.

To understand the global war against ultra-nationalism and fascism, you have to understand Chinese contribution. Without the Chinese contribution to the war, an allied victory would have been much more difficult. Without the allied contribution, a Chinese victory would not have been possible. Both sides needed each other. It was mutual cooperation. The Chinese contribution was important, and in the West that is not remembered enough.

GT: What should China do to preserve the collective memories of WWII?

Mitter: It needs to take time while there is still time. China wants to record the memories of its veterans survived. I've talked to people in their 80s or 90s in China who fought in the war and survived events like the bombing of Chongqing. But those people will pass away soon. Making sure that there are good war histories and recordings of their memories and interviews is very important.

Also, China needs to spend more time to think about all the aspects of its history. One example is that in the book I wrote a lot about Wang Jingwei, the main collaborator with Japan. Some people asked me why I spent so much time concentrating on someone who was a traitor to China. I would say unless you look at the whole picture of people reacting in different ways and try to understand their motivations, you won't understand the full story.

GT: Accusations of historical revisionism over wartime history have been common over the last few years. Will these continue?

Mitter: There is a difference in revisionism in Europe and Asia. Although people are still rewriting the history of WWII in Europe, it's in the margins and it's really about the past. In Asia, it's still in the present.

Part of the reason is that there is still no agreement in the region about the narrative of WWII and what it means.

For instance, let's take the role of Japan. It is really hard to get one judgment about Japan's role in different places, countries and regions. In the Chinese mainland and South Korea, there is a very negative memory of Japan's war crimes: "comfort women," the rape of Nanjing, the bombing of Chongqing and other crimes against citizens of those countries. But in other parts of Asia, there are different opinions toward Japan.

In Taiwan, there is a very positive memory of the Japanese period. In some way, the colonialists were regarded as people who modernized Taiwan as well. In India, Subhas Chandra Bose, the Indian nationalist leader who fought with the Japanese, is still remembered as a national hero because of his wartime cooperation with Japan. In Myanmar, the position is in the middle. Myanmese don't remember the Japanese fondly, but they also believe that Japanese invasion of Myanmar helped destroy Western imperialism.

The critical attitudes in some countries, including China, about Japan are not shared in the wider region. For that reason, it's hard to come to unify views toward Japan in the region. An important development will be to stop concentrating quite so much on the past, and instead think about Asia today.

What the region really needs is to do what was not done in 1945, where there was a failure to create a consensual structure for security in the region, in which China, Japan, the US and a whole variety of South Asian countries should be all acting together. That would be a better legacy for 1945. I don't know if the politicians in the region are capable of making those choices though.

GT: It has been two years since your book was published. Has the reaction been what you expected?

Mitter: I've been very honored that the book has been well received in China. There are a lot of commentaries, many of which have been very favorable. It's also being involved with some of the debates about China's significance in the war.

I wrote the book as a foreigner, trying to educate the Western world about the conflict. So it's an unexpected and surprising honor that in China there were interests as well.

WWII history in China is still developing. Interests are continuing to be strong and even increasing. When I go to China, I found more and more people who want to debate and talk about the country's role in the war. It's a very good thing as it enables people to understand more about the details of what happened and why. The understanding of the wider story of different parties, individuals and actors all being involved in the war is very important. 

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