Last month, China commemorated the 90th anniversary of the September 18 incident— the false flag railway explosion that sparked Imperial Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931. In China’s official historical narrative, the incident, which is colloquially known simply as “9-18” (九一八, jiu yiba), marks the beginning of the “War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression” (抗日战争, Kangrì zhanzheng) (PLA Daily, September 18). In addition to the usual blanket state media coverage, the milestone anniversary was met with moments of silence and air raid sirens intended to evoke history (Haiwai Net, September 18). In schools across the country, class time was devoted to “patriotic education activities” (爱国主义教育活动, Aiguo zhuyi jiaoyu huodong) (Sohu, September 23). For example, a kindergarten in Guang’an, Sichuan held a moment of silence, watched a patriotic documentary to understand the horrors of the invasion, and made paper flower bouquets to express their sorrow for the lives lost in the struggle against Japan (Baijia Hao, September 21). Politburo Standing Committee Member and Secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection Zhao Leji (赵乐际) addressed a ceremony at the September 18 Incident History Museum in the northeastern city of Shenyang near the site of the 1931 bombing. At exactly 9:18 AM on September 18, Zhao, the highest-level official to attend the annual vigil since 2014, led other dignitaries as they rang the museum’s “warning bell” 14 times to signify 14 years of arduous resistance against Japan. (People’s Daily, September 19; Nikkei, September 19).
Always a key date in modern Chinese history, 9-18 has assumed additional political significance in the Xi era. In early 2017, party-affiliated historians reached a consensus that the war with Japan began on September 18, 1931 and not on July 7, 1937 with the Lugou Bridge incident that ignited full scale conflict between Japan and Nationalist China, and was previously considered the war’s start date (Xinhua, January 17, 2017). Based on this determination, the war’s official name was changed from the “Eight-year War of Resistance against Japanese aggression” to the “14-year War of Resistance against Japanese aggression”. The Ministry of Education ordered revisions of all text books to reflect the war’s new name and start date (Peoples’ Daily, January 11, 2017).
Putting aside questions of historical accuracy, the 2017 decision to revise the dates of the second Sino-Japanese war to 1931-1945 indicates the increased emphasis on the conflict in China’s official historical narrative. As People’s Daily acknowledged, the historical revision refocuses China’s account of the 1930s away from the civil war between Nationalist and Communist forces to the conflict with Japan (Peoples’ Daily, January 11, 2017). This is evidenced by the consistently high-level of official and popular ardor for commemorating not only 9-18, but also other key dates in the War of Resistance. In July, China observed the 84th anniversary of the Lugou Bridge Incident, which is now termed “the beginning of China’s whole-nation resistance” against Japan (Xinhua, July 7). The anniversary of the allies’ victory over Japan on September 3 is another key date of remembrance. Last year on the 75th anniversary of allied victory in the “World Anti-Fascist War”, General Secretary Xi Jinping addressed a historical symposium held by the CPC Central Committee, the State Council and the Central Military Commission, where he recalled China’s “great victory” as “a historic turning point at which the Chinese nation rose from severe crisis in modern times and embarked on a journey toward great rejuvenation.” (Xinhua, September 4, 2020). Each year on December 13, which was designated as a National Memorial Day in 2014, candlelight vigils are held across China to remember the victims of the 1937 Nanjing massacre (Xinhua, December 14, 2020).
China’s increased historical emphasis on the legacy of Japanese imperialism traces back to the party’s efforts to address the legitimacy deficit it faced following the 1989 Tiananmen crisis. In the early 1990s, China launched the patriotic education campaign, which sought to ground the party-state’s legitimacy in popular nationalism by emphasizing unresolved historical grievances, particularly toward Japan. In the narrative that emerged, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) plays a starring role in leading China to national rejuvenation after a century of humiliation at the hands of the Western colonial powers and Japan. The campaign effectively shifted China’s historical account away from the triumphalist Marxist-Leninist narrative of the Mao era wherein the party defeated its adversaries through class struggle, to a new narrative centered on national humiliation and rejuvenation.  This humiliation-cum-rejuvenation narrative is epitomized by the slogan: “Never forget the national humiliation, undertake self-strengthening for our generation” (勿忘国耻, 吾辈自强, wu wang guozhi, wubei ziqiang), which is ubiquitous on 9-18 and other historical anniversaries (Xinhua, September 18). This narrative has become even more central under Xi, who views China’s National Rejuvenation as his central project. For example, Xi used the phrase “national rejuvenation” 26 times in his July 1 speech commemorating the CCP’s centenary anniversary (ASPI, July 3).
The CCP has a tradition of re-evaluating or emphasizing elements of its past to shape the politics of the present; this in turn informs popular conceptions of China and its place in the world. A recent example of this phenomenon is the greater public attention that the Korean War (1950-1953)- the “War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea” has received amidst China’s intensifying strategic rivalry with the United States. Presently, the film The Battle at Lake Changjin (长津湖, Changjinhu) has shattered box office records in China. The film, which was released on the eve of China’s national day, portrays Chinese soldiers’ heroism against a more technologically-advanced American adversary (Global Times, October 1). Last year, the Eight Hundred (八佰, ba bai), which was originally opposed by some party censors for its glowing portraying of the CCP’s longtime rival Guomindang (GMD) army’s heroic resistance to the Japanese assault on Shanghai in 1937, grossed approximately $460 million (SupChina, December 18, 2020). The film’s release and ensuing popularity- it was “2020 Weibo Movie of the Year”, demonstrates that opposition to Japan is afforded pride of place over a traditional Maoist interpretation of history in which the GMD are portrayed as feudal oppressors (Sina, February 28).
History as a Mirror
Throughout 2021, Xi has devoted great effort to reshaping the party’s history in order to consolidate the ideological foundation of his leadership ahead of next year’s 20th Party Congress. In February, Xi launched a campaign at the Party History Study and Education Mobilization Conference to study the party’s history (China Brief, June 18). The campaign will set the stage for the sixth plenum this November, when Xi will oversee the release of only the third resolution on the CCP’s history since its founding in 1921. The resolution will likely rehabilitate much of the party’s Mao-era past, and provide further ideological basis for a system predicated on “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in the New Era” (习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想, Xi Jinping xin shidai Zhongguo tese shehui zhuyi sixiang) (Xinhua, August 31; China Brief, September 23). In June, as part of this history study campaign, the CCP’s main theoretical journal, Qiushi, published an essay by Xi exhorting the party to treat “history as a mirror” to demonstrate love of the party, knowledge of history, and patriotism (China Brief, June 18).
Experts have taken up Xi’s call to use “history as a mirror” to reflect on Sino-Japanese relations, which have worsened in 2021. For example, Huang Jiping (胡继平), a Japan specialist and Vice President of the government think tank- China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, wrote a Global Times editorial on why Japan should “deeply reflect” on the September 18 incident and its legacy (Global Times, September 16). Huang links Japan’s imperial past to its current rapprochement with Taiwan. Huang specifically criticizes Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, who in July stated a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would pose an existential threat to Japan, for linking Japan’s national security to the “Taiwan issue” (台湾问题). Huang laments that politicians like Aso perpetuate Japan’s legacy of militarism, and “give the [Japanese] people the illusion they are still living in the pre-war era of militarism,” 让人错觉他们还生活在战前的军国主义时代, rang ren cuojue tamen hai shenghuo zai zhan qian de junguo zhuyì shidai). Another editorial in the Global Times slams Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party for turning its then ongoing leadership election campaign into an “anti-China contest” as China mourned the victims of Japanese aggression on September 18. The piece blames rising popular anger toward Japan, which has resulted in boycotts against Japanese cultural products such as a “Little Kyoto” shopping street in Dalian, on “Japan’s recent provocation and hostility toward China, including challenging China’s bottom line on the Taiwan question.” (Global Times, September 17).
In the post-Tiananmen era, the CCP has sought to use patriotic education to nurture historical grievances, particularly toward Japan, and to cultivate popular nationalist sentiment as a source of regime legitimacy. In the coming years, nationalism is liable to become even more salient to the CCP’s legitimacy as economic growth slows, and the party-state imposes a growing array of restrictions on personal behavior. However, for China’s leaders, stoking popular nationalism is a double-edged sword as compromise or retreat in a crisis involving Japan, Taiwan and/or the United States is likely to generate immense popular anger. This Catch-22 heightens the risk of conflict in an already volatile region.
John S. Van Oudenaren is Editor-in-Chief of China Brief. For any comments, queries, or submissions, please reach out to him at: [email protected].
 For an explanation of this shift see Zheng Wang, “National Humiliation, History Education, and the Politics of Historical Memory: Patriotic Education Campaign in China,” International Studies Quarterly, Volume 52, Issue 4, December 2008, Pages 783–806, https://academic.oup.com/isq/article/52/4/783/1797043?login=true