Following the publication of his latest book on how China has rethought its role in WWII, Rana Mitter discusses the book's themes with Gideon Rachman from the Financial Times.
For most of its history, the People’s Republic of China limited public discussion of World War II. Not only was the war an experience of defeat and victimisation – over 10 million Chinese died at the hands of the Japanese – but it was also an experience during which Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek were fighting for the same goals: a difficult commonality for the Communist Party to accept for many years. Now, as China grows more powerful, the meaning of the war is changing. As Gideon Rachman, Chief Foreign Affairs commentator of the Financial Times, recounts at the beginning of his interview with Rana Mitter, the biggest grossing film this year is The 800: a film set in the Battle of Shanghai in which Chinese soldiers fight a doomed yet heroic rear-guard action against the invading Japanese.
The interview coincides with the publication of Mitter’s new book China’s Good War: How World War II Is Shaping a New Nationalism. In it, Mitter argues that China’s reassessment of the WWII years is central to its newfound confidence abroad and to mounting nationalism at home. This revision was initially prompted by academics, who were encouraged by reforms under Deng Xiaoping and introduced the once-taboo subject into wider discourse. Now however, interest in the war is no longer confined to scholarly journals. Today museums, movies and television shows, street art and popular writing define the war as a founding myth for an ascendant China. Wartime China has emerged, says Mitter, as victor rather than victim.
Mitter suggests in his interview broadcast by the FT and Intelligence Squared that the resurgent narrative about China’s role in WWII is now in competition with others. In particularly he highlights, the history told by interested parties in the United States of America about how that nation’s hegemony in the Pacific region is based on its victory over Japan at the same time. “[The Chinese] of course acknowledge the American role as being very central, primary in many ways, but they object deeply to the exclusion of China from that story. WWII gives a moral foundation to the Chinese presence in the region,” says Mitter.