Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday, 22 November 2020


The Past Isn’t Past for Moscow and Beijing

Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are using changing views of World War II to unify people at home and project power abroad.

Putin and Xi lay flowers at the Tomb of the Soldier in Moscow in 2015.
Putin and Xi lay flowers at the Tomb of the Soldier in Moscow in 2015. Photographer: Host photo agency/RIA Novosti/Getty Images

World War II ended 75 years ago, but it has rarely been invoked as frequently for political purposes as in 2020, from Britain's "Blitz spirit” lockdowns to Italy’s “darkest hour” in March. Even Donald Trump described himself as “wartime president.”

No one, though, has perfected the art of tapping the conflict's history for today’s purposes quite like Russia and China. The unimaginable suffering and contribution to the eventual Allied victory — frequently underestimated in the West’s narrative —  serve a unifying purpose. Increasingly, it bolsters great power ambitions too. It’s no accident that Vladimir Putin chose this year to spend time in the archives rethinking the causes of the conflict. In China, 2020’s blockbuster movie has been an epic account of heroism set during the battle of Shanghai.

Leaders understandably revert to martial metaphors in times of crisis. War evokes resolve, community and bravery. Britain has long used and abused references to events like the bombing of London, even if the Blitz spirit was always more propaganda than reality.

In Moscow and Beijing, though, the exercise goes much further. This isn’t just pandemic-era bombast. To misquote William Faulkner, in Xi Jinping’s China and Putin’s Russia, the past is never dead, it is not even past. In 2017, China officially extended the war by six years, starting it in 1931, when Japan invaded Manchuria, a change that emphasized outside aggression and fanned patriotism. In Russia, constitutional changes this year that allow Putin to stand again for the presidency in 2024, also inserted a reference to the protection of historical truth, and the duty not to diminish “the significance of the people’s heroism in defending the Fatherland”.

Both countries feel their role hasn’t been fully recognized. The Battle of Stalingrad turned the tide in the war, at the cost of half a million Soviet lives; at the height of the fighting, China held down some 800,000 Japanese soldiers. And the tale of suffering, redemption and pride has become louder as Xi and Putin tighten their grips, even if both struggle with problematic details. For Communist China, there’s the fact that the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek did much of the fighting, while Russia has the small matter of the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact, which Russian officials have repeatedly tried to explain away. Last month, Putin backed a ban on comparing the actions of the Soviet Union to Hitler’s Germany.

So Much Owed By So Many

Soviet and Chinese losses account for more than half the total number of estimated World War II casualties

Source: National WWII Museum data

Where the estimate provided is a range, the midpoint has been taken.

Moscow’s cult of the Great Patriotic War started in earnest under Leonid Brezhnev, when post-1945 enthusiasm was waning, but there has been a marked upsurge of late, with phenomena like the Immortal Regiment marches, in which millions of Russians display portraits of their war dead. In the past 12 months alone, Putin has brought up the war on occasions as diverse as his new year’s address and September’s first day of school. When his hopes of a 2020 anniversary parade packed with foreign leaders didn’t go as planned, he took time to write a 9,000 word English-language essay instead. 

For China, it’s all more recent. For decades, World War II was seen as just part of the more important narrative of the Communist Party’s ascent to power. That only began to change in the 1980s, when it became possible to acknowledge Nationalist, and not just Communist, contributions. A full-scale military parade to celebrate victory wasn’t held until 2015

Yet in 2020, a year of pandemic and anniversaries, the wartime rhetoric has cranked up, and the parallels have become telling.

Both countries are in search of a new unifying national narrative, one that glosses over humiliations and emphasizes resistance, power and standing up to the West. Rana Mitter, professor of history at the University of Oxford and author of the book “China’s Good War” on the new nationalism, described it to me as filling an ideological vacuum, offering an alternative to bare consumerism. It plugs a legitimacy deficit, casting today’s leaders as heirs to past heroes. For Putin in particular, it’s a helpful distraction from economic woes.

The conflict also helps both countries claim their spot among the powers that emerged victorious in 1945, and built a new order in the years that followed. Mitter cites the example of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, at pains to remind audiences in February that his was the first country to sign the United Nations Charter, glossing over the detail of who exactly represented China at that time. Last month, Xi used the anniversary of the subsequent Korean conflict to warn Washington to respect China’s “red lines.”

Putin has similarly sought to assert Russia’s clout. His June essay pointed to appeasement by the U.K., France and Italy at Munich in 1938 as the trigger for World War II; whitewashed Moscow’s pact with Berlin by hinting at other potential “secret protocols”; and called for a 21st century version of the Allied conferences that redrew the postwar map. It said less about the war than about Putin’s aspirations. 

With collective memory put to political use, neither side wants an actual discussion of the past. Putin's glaring omissions, resistance to opening Stalin-era archives and the jail sentence given to gulag historian Yuri Dmitriev in September attest to that. For a measure of China’s sensitivity, consider the uproar in Hong Kong over a college entrance exam that asked students to discuss whether Japan had done “more good than harm” to China between 1900 and 1945.

But then, it was never about the past. History is a dangerous tool indeed.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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