Chinese History X

A growing legion of journalists, documentary film makers, business people, citizen activists and even movie stars are mounting an unlikely campaign to re-write China’s wartime history.

Graph for Chinese History X

Chinese Peoples' Liberation Army soldiers performing honour guard duties stand at attention with red ceremonial flags, 06 June 2001 in Beijing. [AFP PHOTO/Stephen SHAVER]

Since the founding of the People’s Republic more than six decades ago, school children in China have been taught that Communist guerrillas under the leadership of Mao played an instrumental role in the defeat of imperial Japan.

Propaganda movies, school textbooks and TV series lionise the CCP’s contribution to the war against Japan. Generations of young Chinese have grown up believing in the official mythology carefully cultivated by the party-state.

Margaret MacMillan, a noted Oxford historian, says the Party does it best to ensure the public gets only its version of history. Such a narrative is important for the CCP to bolster its nationalist credentials – one of the key pillars of its legitimacy to rule the world’s most populous nation.

In fact it was the Chinese Nationalist party, which lives in exile in Taiwan, which bore the brunt of fighting against Japan. Over 3.2 million Nationalist soldiers perished in the war including 210 generals.

Their contribution has been largely air-brushed from the official history. Nationalist veterans who fought against the Japanese were treated as “class enemies” and many had to endure discrimination for decades.

However, a growing legion of journalists, documentary film makers, business people, citizen activists and even movie stars are re-writing China’s wartime history, one of the most important episodes in the country’s turbulent modern history.

One of its mostly unlikely heroes is Fan Jianchuan, a former People’s Liberation Army officer, party official and property developer, who has devoted his entire fortune to build museums commemorating Nationalists and even American contributions to the war effort against Japan.

The one-time property developer ranked number 397th on the Hurun Report’s China Rich List in 2007, with his wealth estimated at $270 million. He has used his considerable wealth to collect artefacts and documents from around the world including China, Japan and the United States.

Fan has commissioned hundreds of statues of Nationalists generals who died in the war against Japan and displayed them in a “Plaza of Heroes” in front of his museums. The former soldier also dedicated one museum to the Flying Tigers – American air force volunteers who fought in China during the Second World War.

His effort has not gone unnoticed. Newspapers and TV stations around China have reported on the country’s first private museum builder and the sensitive nature of his displays. Surprisingly, he has received support from some top-ranking PLA generals, including the few remaining ones who fought in the 1940s against the Japanese.

Fan’s museums are just one example of many grass-roots movements that want to set the record straight on this pivotal moment in China’s history.

Cui Yongyuan, a popular talk-show host from the country’s most influential state-owned broadcaster CCTV has embarked on a large-scale oral-history project to record testimonies of surviving Nationalist war veterans.

His oral history project has resulted in one of China’s most popular documentaries, which was viewed 10 million times within its first month of screening in 2010. Many viewers have been surprised by the untold history of China’s war against Japan and the role played by the CCP’s nemesis, the Nationalist Party.

These efforts have spurred many Chinese activists into action to search and care for the surviving war veterans who have been shunned by the Communist party for nearly six decades.

Young Chinese movie stars, journalists and ordinary citizens have formed NGOs to raise funds to care for dying veterans. Some have gone to Burma to locate the remains of a Chinese expeditionary force which fought alongside Australians, British and Americans against the Japanese.

A groundswell of public opinion and social activism has even prompted legislators from China’s rubber stamp parliament into action. Wang Mingang, a pro-Beijing legislator from Hong Kong formally petitioned the government last year to recognise veterans of the CCP’s former arch-enemy as war heroes.

In June last year, the Civil Affairs Ministry issued a notice that finally recognised the veteran status of former Nationalist soldiers, six decades after the end of the Second World War. The recognition is too late for many dying veterans but a landmark symbolic victory for China’s nascent civil society.

This relentless effort of Chinese citizens is re-writing the doctored official history of China and exposing the CCP’s duplicity in airbrushing its former enemy’s effort in the most important war against foreign invaders.

Fan, the museum builder, is itching to start another large project. This time, he wants to show the dire consequences of the Cultural Revolution, which brought chaos to the country in the 1960s and 70s. However, it is a topic that Beijing is yet to show willingness to concede ground.

He has already amassed a vast collection of Cultural Revolutions artefacts and is confident the true history will see the light of a day in the not too distant future. 

Follow Peter Cai on Twitter: @peteryuancai

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