BEIJING – Chinese veteran Sun Yibai doesn’t have much time for the Communist Party’s claim to have led China to victory against Japan in World War II.
“The Communist Party didn’t fight Japan,” said the sprightly 97-year-old, who once served as a translator with the storied Flying Tigers aviation brigade. “They made up a whole bunch of stories afterward, but it was all fabricated.”
That view challenges a basic premise underpinning this week’s lavish celebrations in Beijing of the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat: That Mao Zedong’s communists were the saviors of the nation, battling against Japanese forces that began occupying parts of China in 1931 before launching a full-blown invasion in 1937.
Veterans such as Sun have long found themselves on the wrong side of that narrative. Their service with the Kuomintang led to imprisonment, persecution and often death in the years after the 1949 communist revolution. Now mostly in their 90s, they’re living out their remaining years shunned and forgotten by all but a few who care to hear their stories.
“Nobody cares about veterans like me. Nobody cares. People just forget what happened in the past,” Sun said during an interview in his Beijing apartment, which is stuffed wall-to-wall with books and old photos.
In a Beijing suburb, Lu Chunshan, 91, held up fingers gnarled and deformed from two decades of hard labor, his sentence for having signed on as a military cadet with the Kuomintang in 1942. Following the war, Lu found temporary employment but was dragged before baying crowds during political campaigns in the 1950s and 1960s and denounced as an enemy of the communist cause.
“If you tangled with the communists, then it was as if you made no contribution at all to speak of,” Lu said. “If you did just what the party said, you’d have a good life.”
Despite having faded documentation confirming his national service, Lu receives no pension, surviving mainly on 2,400 yuan ($380) per month provided by a former employer, a state oil company. He and his female companion of the last decade buy their market produce late in the afternoon, when the prices are lowest.
Most independent historians agree that it was the forces of the Kuomintang, led by Mao’s archrival, Chiang Kai-shek, that led the anti-Japanese struggle and suffered the vast majority of casualties.
Following the war’s end, the exhausted and divided Kuomintang were defeated by the communists in a renewed civil war and fled to Taiwan, cementing Mao’s claim to having defeated imperialism, unified the country and overthrown the old feudal order.
“This joint victory over the external enemy and the internal one, including the landlord class, is a fundamental component of (the party’s) founding myth,” said Harvard University China scholar Anthony Saich.
While the Kuomintang’s contribution to the war effort is no longer denied outright, it is heavily minimized, and veterans such as Sun and Lu are largely ignored.
“The mainstay role of the Communist Party was the linchpin in the victory of the entire nation in the war of resistance,” top party historian Gao Yongzhong recently told reporters in a reiteration of the party’s basic line. “This conclusion has been long established,” Gao said.
Formal 70th anniversary commemorations begin Wednesday with a ceremony at the Great Hall of the People to honor veterans — at least those whose service has been officially recognized. Thursday will see a massive military parade through Beijing showcasing the growing might of the People’s Liberation Army that has unnerved several neighboring countries.
China marks the victory over the Japanese on Sept. 3, the day after Tokyo’s formal surrender, though the festivities gloss over the fact that Japan surrendered to the Allies aboard a U.S. naval ship and that Chiang was the Allied commander for mainland China at the time.
The communist claim to have led China to victory against Japan is rooted in a hazy assertion that the party was the first to call for fighting against Japan, at a time when the Kuomintang were biding their time to build up China’s strength for the coming conflict with Tokyo. That Mao spent the war well behind the lines in remote Shaanxi province is little mentioned.
Gao, the party historian, puts the communists’ wartime losses at 450,000 dead and injured.
Independent historians put the Kuomintang’s losses at around 3.2 million troops suffered in more than 1,000 engagements with Japanese forces ranging from the cities of the east coast to the southwestern province of Yunnan. The Kuomintang also worked closely with U.S. and Britain, contributing forces to the fight in what is now Myanmar and hosting air bases in the interior of China used in bombing missions against targets as far away as Japan.
Beyond the victory in 1945, communist propaganda also seeks to portray Mao’s Communist Party as a critical force in founding the postwar global order.
A movie by the military’s film studio even shows Mao as a key mover behind the 1943 Cairo Conference, an event he didn’t attend and had no apparent influence over.
The congress, which Chiang attended alongside British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, resulted in a commitment to return to China territories seized by Japan, including Taiwan and Manchuria.
The film has been widely mocked online, with spoof posters that replaced Mao’s image with those of various world leaders, movie characters and others.
The Communist Party clings to its unique take on history because of its need to shore up the legitimacy of its rule through nationalism following the abandonment of Marxist orthodoxy. Though its grip appears firm, the party faces a host of challenges from rising social inequality, a slowing economy and its continuing refusal to share power or allow any degree of democratic opening.
Lacking a popular mandate from free elections, the party must “mutilate facts, censor the truth and manipulate history,” said Hong Kong University historian Frank Dikotter, author most recently of “The Tragedy of Liberation” about the first decade of communist rule.
For veterans like Sun, communist claims of leadership in the war are little more than fairy tales.
“These are facts: The Communist Party was weak and had no power to oppose the Japanese,” Sun said.
The 1966-76 Cultural Revolution was especially tough for Sun, who was labeled a spy. Sun endured beatings by young Red Guards at the Beijing middle school where he was teaching and considers himself fortunate to have survived. Two fellow veterans at the school died from their persecution.
Sun said his service has never been recognized by the current government and he receives no pension or other assistance, although the government has promised priority placement in a nursing home.
Such treatment contrasts starkly with Kuomintang veterans in Taiwan, where the party has largely held on to political power despite a transition to Western-style democracy over the past two decades.
Veterans there were front-and-center at the island’s own commemorative military parade in July and feted with new awards for their service.
“The war of resistance was led by the Republic of China and Chairman Chiang Kai-shek was the force behind it,” Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou said in a speech after the parade. “No one is allowed to distort that.”
Professor Zhou Yongsheng of Beijing’s China Foreign Affairs University is one of a handful of mainland Chinese scholars advocating a shift in the party’s approach to the Kuomintang’s wartime record.
Denying their role in fighting Japan and discriminating against their veterans is unfair, he said, “We really should look at this veteran issue with a fair, objective and historical perspective.”