No Sacrifice, No Victory: Building Chinese collective narratives

Whoever has won the US presidential elections, China is ready. The movie Sacrifice (金剛川 2020) tells us why.

by Wong Tsz (王子)

Background

The time was June 1953, the Korean War had been going on for three years, Chinese volunteers were still fighting tirelessly in a war they believed was necessary to defend their motherland. The mountains of Kumsong set the foreground of the last major battle of the war. In the valley of the mountains lies the Kumsong River (金剛川). Chinese engineers were ordered to build a bridge on the river to ensure the logistical support to the troops stationed in the mountain. The bridge was destroyed seven times by UN artillery and air raids and seven times it was rebuilt by brave Chinese volunteers. The movie Sacrifice – the original title of which is “Kumsong River” (金剛川) – narrates the perspectives of three soldiers at this scene.

The reasons behind China’s involvement in the Korean War were manifold: a communist alliance, the wider impact of Maoism, Chinese national security interests, economic incentives       from Soviet Russia to its eastern neighbors and the need to consolidate domestic political control in mainland China shortly after defeating the Nationalists. The official terminology in China for the Korean War is ‘抗美援朝’ – ’Resist US Aggression and Aid (North) Korea’-, a term that avoids explicitly mentioning of the term ‘war’: the Chinese were helping the Koreans while the Americans were the demon. This perspective would of course be interpreted very differently in South Korea and in the West. The Korean War was the first ‘hot’ war of the Cold War, and the distress of a communist expansion in East Asia was clear and imminent. For many years, this conflict  has been a very sensitive part of Chinese history – but things are changing.

Reinventing the ‘Enemy’

The ‘American Imperialists’ were the enemy of China. The Korean War is the only major military conflict between China and the Western world, a war that was induced mainly based on ideological confrontation. Yet, Asia was not the center-stage during the Cold War: Europe was. The US government considered containing the communist expansion in Europe as the top priority. In East Asia, the role of the US was to defend South Korea and Taiwan. It is worth mentioning that the Republic of China (Taiwan) was the sole representative of mainland China in the UN until 1971. which means that the People’s Republic of China and the US never officially declared war on each other, although they were de facto belligerents.

China’s decision to enter the war had shifted from a tale of socialist fraternalism against US aggression into a selfless sacrifice of Chinese troops, among which was Mao Zedong’s own son, to protect the state and allow national rejuvenation. Despite  heavy casualties – over one million dead, missing and wounded -, the war was still considered as an important victory to the People’s Republic and is also known as the “war of the nation’s commencement” (立國之戰). Today, the ongoing trade war between the US and China sheds a new light on the uneasy history of the 1950s: the recent tensions between the two global powers could be seen as another undeclared war.

Three Sharp Knives

The US was, and still is the de facto enemy of China, but not the only one. Before China sent its volunteers, Mao Zedong pointed out that the US wanted to put ‘three sharp knives’ into China: one in the head from North Korea, one in the waist from Taiwan, and one in the feet from Vietnam; China was surrounded in all three directions.

The knife in the head may have been removed after the Korean Armistice Agreement in 1953, but the political atmosphere in the Korean Peninsula still remains unstable, especially after North Korea’s nuclear armament in 2006. Relations between mainland China and Taiwan soured since Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen openly denounced the 1992 Consensus and the ‘One Country Two Systems’ in 2019. Taiwan is once again armed to the teeth against the communist military threat through massive weapon supplies. After the series of protests in Hong Kong in 2019, Taiwan’s confidence towards Beijing’s plan for a ‘peaceful reunification’ has reached a new low. Indeed, public opinion tends to support ties with the US, both politically and economically.

Vietnam was at war with China in 1979, because of the latter’s expansion in the South China Sea. Anti-Chinese sentiment in Vietnam remains high. Unable to counter the Chinese offensive alone, Vietnam sought the support of its former enemy, the US , who supplied them with twelve new patrol boats and two large retired vessels to beef up its coast guard. Vietnamese troops also engage more frequently in joint military exercises, especially with the US.

The ‘Three Sharp Knives’ in Mao’s own words have already evolved into the ‘First Islands Chain’ against China’s military expansion: a chain of islands consisting of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Philippines, Indonesia, Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam. This alliance  is a crucial part of US’s China containment policy.

Reigniting Nationalism

After the Cold War, the communist antagonist disappeared from Europe, while in Asia, the successor of Communism, China, remains undefeated. Through reiterating the history of the Korean War, the Chinese Communist Party attempts to portray China as the victim of foreign aggression and underlines its legitimacy to govern the nation. The narrative is clear: the Korean War was an ‘ultimate victory’ to ‘wipe out the humiliation’ of being bullied by foreign powers in the past century. Socialism with Chinese Characteristics (中國特色社會主義) became the umbrella term to narrate China’s success story. 

Reinterpreting the Korean War clearly was one way to tell the world ‘who we [the Chinese] are’. Therefore, Communism alone is not enough to build a strong collective identity: nationalism is the key. Chinese President Xi Jinping once stated that the Communist Party faced three ‘historical problems’: “being beaten while the nation was weak”, “being starved while the nation was poor” and “being scolded while the nation was speechless” (落後就要挨打,貧窮就要挨餓,失語就要挨駡). The last problem remaining was the last one and therefore China had to fight back when criticized.

This means China has abandoned the dictum of ‘hide and bide’ (韜光養晦) diplomacy that had been implemented since Deng Xiaoping, Mao’s successor. Instead, President Xi Jinping envisions China as a great power, which would be able to steer crises and turn them to advantage. Upon the US-China trade war and the outbreak of COVID-19, collective heroism and selfless sacrifice are once again celebrated. The recent tensions with Washington have changed the equation for Beijing. “There is a clear flare-up of anti-American sentiment,” said historian Ma Zhao. “China doesn’t think cooperating with the US on North Korea will do any good to improve the relations,” added Zhao Tong, an expert on the Korean peninsula at Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy. “That the US is determined to contain China is an ever-greater consensus in China.”

Hence the renewed nationalistic sentiment is nothing unexpected, as demonstrated in the movie Sacrifice: once the ‘Main Melody’ (主旋律) is being firmly established, everything else can be ignored. In other words, provided that the heroes’ sacrifice can be theatrically staged and the political stakes within the story can be safeguarded, the ideological agenda of the regime may thus be served accordingly. In their essence, such a movie is not much different from the ‘revolutionary operas’ (樣板戲) that served as propaganda during the Cultural Revolution.

On the other hand, through such story-telling, mistakes, misjudgments and the people responsible for them could be seamlessly evaded. During decades, an ideological playbook ensured the absolute loyalty of any performing art to the governing regime: a playbook that could never be wrong. Victorie after victorie, ‘collective heroism’ and ‘selfless sacrifice’ will always justify the big ‘but’ when talking about real politics: the COVID-19 outbreak in China was serious, but… ; the trade war with the US was hard for China, but…

Any gunpoint that was pointing outwards could be inverted anytime – that is to anyone who disagrees or dissuades this ideological agenda. Not even close to a hero’s welcome, this is what exactly happened to many Korean War veterans: during the conflict, around 21 thousand Chinese volunteers became prisoners of war (POWs), others chose to go to Taiwan or other states and only 7110 returned to China. Suspected to be defectors, most communist POWs were expelled from the party after returning home, and these ‘war heroes’ were targeted in waves of political movements in the later decades. Yet, these stories are hardly to be seen in the official narrative.

Whoever controls the past controls the future. China’s historical doctrine, like its media, was firmly grasped by its China Dream. The playbook of this Main Melody could always be shelved or revisited whenever needed: this year marks the 70th anniversary of the Korean War and the scale of commemorations from the Chinese side is unprecedented. This conflict, is often described as the ‘Forgotten War’ and the ‘need’ to revive this memory is clearly established in Sacrifice. Yet, such monotonic sentiment towards historical research and retrospection on a national scale does not help finding the truth. What China needs is not another revolutionary-opera-like movie, but a genuine reconnection with the wider world. 

That’s yet another ‘but’ in the story.


Picture Credits: Pexels, Suzy Hazelwood

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