A Different Viewpoint
No. 4 2015 October/December
Yevgeniy Rumyantsev

Yevgeny Rumyantsev, PhD, is Head of the Scientific Information and Documentation Center at the Institute of Far Eastern Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

How China Sees World War II

On 3 September 2014, China for the first time celebrated a new national holiday –Victory Day in the Chinese People’s War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression. The holiday was established on 27 February 2014 by the 12th Session of the Permanent Committee of the National People’s Congress. At the same time, the People’s Congress designated December 13 as National Memorial Day for the Nanjing Massacre Victims. The official purpose of the new holidays is to “engrave those events in the national memory of the Chinese people and make them a source of strength for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Chinese media report that celebrating the victory in the anti-Japanese war will “inspire China to show more initiative in international cooperation, invigorate its worldwide activities, and assume greater responsibility and obligations in the world community.”


For a long time memorial dates connected with the Second World War were celebrated very modestly in China, if at all. One reason is that Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang government accepted the capitulation of Japanese troops in 1945, not the Communist Party of China (CPC). But the situation is gradually changing. Chinese President Xi Jinping set the tone in Beijing’s new interpretation of WWII when he said on 3 September 2014 that “the great victory of the Chinese people in the war against Japan became a historical turning point for the Chinese nation on its way from sliding into a deep crisis to achieving a great rejuvenation.” The victory re-established China as a major world power and “opened up bright prospects for the great renewal of the Chinese nation.” The Renmin Ribao (“People’s Daily”) newspaper wrote: “The global hegemony of Europe has ended and it has ended for good… the post-war period ushered in a new era for the peoples of Asia, Africa, and Latin America… which makes the victory of 1945 worth celebrating.”

This year’s celebrations culminated in a rally that attracted several thousand people on September 3 in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Many foreign guests,  Russian President Vladimir Putin among them, attended the first military parade in China’s postwar history.

The event was preceded by an intensive political propaganda campaign that  involved many party and government organizations, such as the CPC Central Committee’s institutes, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the Academy of Military Science, and others. The view they expressed in their publications was that the “heroic struggle and enormous efforts” of the Chinese people forced Japan to return the territory it had seized after the 1894-1895 war, and completely eradicated China’s “national humiliation” for its previous defeats at the hands of foreign aggressors. The war “produced a miracle in military history: a weak semi-colonial country defeated a powerful industrial nation; this miracle, in turn, was the result of the bloody and persistent struggle waged by the Chinese people.”   

The start of the anti-Japanese war has now been moved back six years to the period from “the 18 September 1931 incident” (the beginning of the Japanese aggression in Manchuria) to the “7 July 1937 incident” by the Marco Polo (Lugou) Bridge, previously classified as a local anti-Japanese war. So the events of 1931-1945 –  “the local anti-Japanese war” of 1931-1937 and the “nationwide anti-Japanese war” of 1937-1945 – were merged together. In contrast to the previous view – widespread even in China and which described it as Japan’s war against China – the current interpretation is that the incident was one of the “most crucial” episodes of World War II as a whole. Additionally, “the main theater of operations in the East… had a significant impact and even changed the course of the Second World War, and played a decisive role in defeating Japanese fascism.” 

Media describe the Allies’ role as follows: “In 1945, the Soviet Union moved its troops into Northeast China, and the United States was on the way to Japan and even dropped atomic bombs on its cities. All this sped up the defeat of Japanese fascism.” In particular, one of the articles states that “there are two points of view. One holds that the decisive factor in defeating Japan and forcing it to capitulate was the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States. The other view maintains that the Soviet army was a significant factor. When Japan was breathing its last breath, the Soviet Union unexpectedly sent troops to China’s Dongbei and crushed the Kwantung Army, forcing Japan to capitulate. Neither point of view is historically correct as they not only belittle the role of China’s resistance in suppressing the aggression of Japanese militarism, but they also deny China as the main theater of operations in the global anti-fascist war in the East and its immense contribution to its victory…”

In fact, China spared the Soviet Union the need to fight a two-front war and face the consequences, and overall China, “like the Soviet Union, played an important role in achieving victory in World War II.” In other words, the Soviet Union won the war in the West, and China in the East, and their input allegedly was roughly equal.  

A team of authors from the Party History Research Center of the CPC Central Committee put it this way: “The Axis countries understood that they would be able to establish global dominance only if two conditions were met: the Soviet Union must be defeated in Europe, and China, in Asia. In the global anti-fascist camp, the Soviet Union and China were two forces that stood like a rock among the rapids.”  

Chinese theoreticians and propagandists are seeking to give a new name to World War II and change its chronological order. It is for this reason that in China the Second World War is officially called the “World Anti-Fascist War.” 

They have also invented a new definition of fascism: “The product of the conjunction of imperialism and feudal militarism.” Georgi Dimitrov crafted the classical definition,  constructing it as “the open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinist, and most imperialist elements of finance capital.” Clearly, the Chinese definition includes not only fascist Germany and Italy, but also Japan, a country referred to in the Soviet Union at that time as “militarist.”  

China considers 1 September 1939 as “the start of armed hostilities in the European Theater of World War II,” while “the Lugou Bridge incident on 7 July 1937 was the actual beginning of World War II.”    

In an apparent attempt to lend some semblance of credibility to such a bold approach, Chinese authorities widely cite their country’s losses in the war. At celebrations in Moscow in 1995 marking the 50th anniversary of the Soviet victory in the 1941-1945 Great Patriotic War, then President Jiang Zemin mentioned that 35 million Chinese had been killed and wounded in the war. Jiang’s successor Hu Jintao spoke of 35 million killed, making no mention of the wounded. He may simply have slipped up, of course. Estimates of China’s losses in that war vary in the Chinese segment of the Internet from seven million to 40 million. Many Chinese bloggers cite official figures, but without the ? character, which means wounded, and speak of “35 million fallen heroes.”

The Chiang Kai-shek government’s data disclosed in 1946 stated that 3.31 million military personnel had been killed and wounded from 7 July 1937 to 2 September 1945, and civilian losses had amounted to 8.42 million. On 20 May 1947, the government raised the casualty figures to 12,784,934. Modern Western sources differ in data: some speak of 14 million deaths, some of eight to ten million killed, and some of two million wounded in the military and 12 million civilian deaths. According to Western official statistics, China’s population in 1945 had decreased by 18 million from 1937.   

China started inflating its war casualty figures during Jiang Zemin’s rule and especially after the bloody crackdown in Tiananmen Square on 4 September 1989. With its authority plummeting, the Party apparently decided to encourage nationalist sentiment. In those years, war casualty estimates were unofficially raised to 80 million, including 40 million killed. These figures were also spread by relevant party agencies to squash rumors that the Party had killed more people than the Japanese army.

Chinese data indicate that at the height of the Sino-Japanese conflict military operations involved “approximately” two million Japanese military personnel and “more than one million” soldiers and officers of “puppet” troops; i.e., Chinese armed units fighting on the side of Japan. The Chinese army killed, wounded, and captured 1,559,000 Japanese and “destroyed” 1,180,000 puppet troops. The Chinese Communist forces alone allegedly killed 1,740,000 Japanese and puppet troops, including 527,000 Japanese; that is, 64 percent of Japanese soldiers and officers and more than 95 percent of puppet troops.

To substantiate China’s paramount role in the war, Chinese authorities cite statements made in those years by foreign politicians and top military officers. For example, media frequently use a slightly edited quote from Soviet Marshal Vasily Chuikov’s memoirs, which reads in Chinese as “Japan did not attack the Soviet Union even in the most arduous years of the war but was drowning China in blood.” The original quote by Chuikov, who arrived in Stalingrad in the fall of 1942 from China where he had served in 1940-1942 as the head of the Soviet military mission and military advisor to the Chiang Kai-shek government, reads as follows: “… I went there to help the Chinese people throw the Japanese invaders out of their land. They may say: What a helper! Wasn’t it in the interests of the Soviet Union to wage the war against Japan using China as a cat’s paw? I heard that in those years and later. However Japan never made a move against the Soviet Union even in the most arduous years of the war, but was drowning China in blood.”

So Beijing is trying to bring the understanding of China’s role in World War II inside the country and abroad in line with its present status in global politics and economics. But these efforts bring some controversial facts to the surface. For example, after the “national war of resistance against Japan” began in 1937, a group of German officers and generals continued to instruct the Chinese military for another year until Hitler recalled them in June 1938. In his farewell speech, Chiang Kai-shek assured them that “the allegiance and morale of the German army are an example for the Chinese army” and “the enemies of our friends are also our enemies.” In fact, one Chinese officer famously said to his departing German colleagues: “See you in Xinjiang;” that is, on the border of China and the Soviet Union. Moreover, China continued to receive ammunition from Nazi Germany for several months after the beginning of the war against “fascist” Japan.   

 Was China’s war of resistance against Japan truly “national?” Apart from Chiang Kai-shek’s central government and communists who fought against Japan, there were a number of pro-Japanese structures in China, including Manchukuo, a puppet state in Manchuria, and the Wang Jingwei government in Nanjing. They are called “puppet” now, but here is how a Chinese politician described the situation on 22 June 1941: “If we join the Allies and they win, this will be good for China. If they lose, it will be a catastrophe for Chiang Kai-shek; but since Wang Jingwei formed a government in Nanjing in cooperation with the Japanese, there will be room for China in both boats.”


Now I will say a few words about the assertions that China was the main theater of the war in the East. Beijing claims that 69 percent of Japan’s ground forces were in the Chinese theater in early December 1941. However Marshal Chuikov wrote that by the end of 1941 the Japanese army had about 2.5 million troops (including 310,000 in the Navy). The Kwantung Army consisted of 13 infantry and two tank divisions, and had 500 aircraft. By the fall of 1941, the army was 700,000 strong. In addition, two Japanese infantry divisions were stationed in Korea; 21 infantry divisions and 20 infantry brigades (overall more than 600,000 troops) were in China. The South Strike Group (Indochina, Hainan, and southern Chinese ports) was made up of 11 infantry divisions, and four infantry brigades of about 230,000 troops, which formed four field armies. Japan planned to use 1,700 aircraft and 150 warships in the south and in the Hawaiian operation. The bulk of the naval forces were lying in wait in Japan and special standby areas. Over 400,000 troops were also deployed in Japan, including four infantry and ten training divisions, 11 infantry brigades, and about 100 combat aircraft.

Of 2.5 million Japanese troops, a 600,000-strong force was fighting against Chiang Kai-sheik and Mao Zedong. The force was supported by troops from the South Strike Group that was targeted mainly at Indochina. With 700,000 men the Kwantung Army was poised for war with the Soviet Union and not engaged in combat operations in China. And yet the Chinese army failed to stop a further Japanese invasion. The only reason why the Japanese government decided against going north and headed south instead was their experience of fighting the Red Army in the Battles of Lake Khasan and Khalkhin Gol.

Where was the main land (specifically land) theater of war in the East after the U.S. came into play and especially after December 1943 when the British-U.S. counteroffensive began? Even some Chinese experts agree that, at a minimum, this is a debatable issue. Indirectly, they believe it necessary to prove that it was in China all the same.

Vladimir Petrovsky of the Russian Academy of Military Science told Renmin Ribao that China’s political and propaganda campaign “will help understand the immense role China played as the main battleground in the Eastern Theater.” Sinologist Yuri Tavrovsky wrote in the same newspaper that “we could avoid a two-front war during the Nazi invasion only because Japanese aggressors were bound hand and foot in China.” He also states that the Red Army won the Battle of Lake Khasan in 1938 because the Japanese did not have enough ammunition after they had spent most of it fighting for Wuhan on the Chinese front.

Frankly speaking, current Chinese propaganda turns the situation upside down. China did not save the Soviet Union from a Japanese invasion; on the contrary, it was the assistance of the Soviet Union, then the U.S., that kept China from turning into a Japanese ally, ultimately securing it a place among the countries that crushed the Axis powers.  

From October 1937 to September 1939, the Soviet Union supplied 985 aircraft, 82 tanks, more than 1,300 artillery systems, and 14,000 machine guns, ammunition, equipment, and fighting gear. The Japanese army fighting in China got almost no new weapons. In early 1944, its artillery systems, firearms, and field transport were practically at the same levels as in July 1937 when it entered the war. Only the Japanese aircraft fleet was renovated after 1938, when Soviet aviators joined the fight.   

Having lost its major industrial regions, China had virtually no production capacities left. Electricity output in the area controlled by the central government accounted for a mere eight percent of all electric power generated in the regions occupied by the Japanese army. So the war against the invaders was waged with no proper logistics system to support the troops. China could only get necessary supplies from Allied countries, but those countries were under enormous strain. In 1931-1945, Northeast China, the most industrialized part of the country, supplied raw materials, metal, and other commodities entirely to Japan. For years, the region remained a relatively calm haven for the Japanese and was eventually liberated by the Red Army. China could not have done it single-handedly.

Another point that requires critical assessment is the belief that the Communist Party of China played a “key” role in crushing Japanese aggression, “standing like a rock among the rapids” and “in the vanguard leading the nation to victory.” Beijing propagandists claim that the CPC put forth and implemented “a general strategy of protracted war and employed people’s war strategies and tactics.” These included ambushes and sabotage, as well as mine, tunnel, and sparrow (operation in small, sporadic groups) warfare, which together forced the Japanese invaders to get bogged down in a people’s war.   

In 1937-1945, the CPC, operating out of its Yan’an-based headquarters in the northwest of the country, repeatedly issued declarations on the irreconcilable struggle against the aggressor and published the Ten-Point Program for Resisting Japan and Saving the Nation. Mao Zedong wrote articles addressing urgent matters (“Policies, Measures, and Perspectives for Resisting the Japanese Invasion,” “On Protracted War,” “Problems of Strategy in Guerrilla War,” etc.) and analyzed maneuver and trench warfare problems. Today the CPC Central Committee attaches special significance to Mao Zedong’s statement “The Last Round with the Japanese Invaders” published on 9 August 1945.    

Things were more complicated with the real struggle against the Japanese invasion. The largest combat operation of the Communist Party forces against the Japanese invaders during the war (the Hundred Regiments Offensive) was commanded by Peng Dehuai and took place in August-December 1940. In three and a half months, more than 20,000 Japanese were killed and wounded, pro-Japanese puppet troops lost another 5,000, and about 20,000 were captured. The CPC military casualties exceeded 22,000 men who had been killed, wounded, and gassed. Peng Dehuai was held responsible for this battle during his prosecution in the 1960s because it ran counter to Mao’s policy: committing 70 percent to building strength, 20 percent to dealing with the Kuomintang, and 10 percent to resisting Japan.

The current viewpoint in China is that there were two fronts during the war: the regular one, with the Kuomintang army as its main force, and the front behind enemy lines, controlled by the Communist Party. Some Chinese authors clarify: “Chinese society still tends to overstate the role of the front held by the Kuomintang in a showdown with Japan, and belittle the role of the front opened by the CPC behind the enemy lines.” However even the Beijing-based newspaper Huanqiu Shibao had to admit that an opinion existed in China which stated the communists “maneuvered but did not go into combat” during the war.

The Chinese authorities emphasize that during the anti-Japanese war the Communist Party “asserted the leading role of Mao Zedong’s ideas in the whole party.” Contemporary party historians write that the “vanguard” role of the CPC “led the Chinese people to become deeply aware that the Communist Party of China was a devoted representative of their will and interests, and based on that voluntarily choose and accept the party’s leadership, and fight under its direction for victory in the anti-Japanese war.” Xi Jinping has called on the nation to “unswervingly follow, under the leadership of the Communist Party, the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics” as “the historical choice of the Chinese people,” “strengthen confidence in the path, and in the theories and institutions of socialism with Chinese characteristics,” “and get prepared for a new great struggle.” Much attention has been paid to promoting the Chinese version of history and the current state of Sino-Japanese relations. Japan has been urged to develop “a correct understanding and deep awareness of the aggressive history of Japanese militarism,” since this is “the important political basis for establishing and developing Sino-Japanese ties.”


While admitting that the Chinese sustained heavy losses in the war with Japan and many members of the Chinese military, some units and formations of the Kuomintang army, and the forces controlled by the Communist Party acted bravely and heroically, I cannot agree with the above statements. Contemporary Russian historians say that China was the mud in which Tokyo’s military campaign became mired. China did not conduct active combat operations, yet kept a considerable part of the Japanese troops at bay. Its role in World War II was generally passive, since the strategy of the ruling circles, including Chiang Kai-shek’s government and the communists, was to wait and avoid large-scale hostilities. 

Marshal Chuikov criticized both Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong for their unwillingness to fully fight the Japanese. “I also noted that when Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union and Japan’s Kwantung Army was preparing for an offensive against the Soviet Far East, Mao Zedong, who was not an internationalist, pursued a dual (shadow) policy by not willing to take strong action to immobilize at least part of the adjoining Japanese troops.”  

The head of the Soviet military intelligence group in Yan’an reported that in July 1941 the Soviet Command had informed the CPC about the redeployment of mobilized Japanese units from Japan’s islands to the mainland and their concentration on the Soviet border. The commanders of China’s Eighth Route Army were asked to disrupt the Japanese military buildup near Beiping, Kalgan, and Baotou, thus helping the Soviet Union in a critical situation. “It is particularly important to disrupt normal railway traffic towards these destinations…,” the Soviet Command wrote.  But the CPC ignored this and many other Soviet requests. Moreover, during a meeting at the headquarters of the 120th Infantry Division of the Chinese Communist forces in the fall of 1941, someone asked the Soviet representative: “Why isn’t the Red Army following the military manual? The manual says: Fight the enemy on its territory!” The question provoked a burst of loud laughter. 

Another Soviet representative at the Communist Party’s Yan’an headquarters wrote in 1943: “They do not understand here, or do not want to understand, that our people are fighting the fiercest war in our history, that the Soviet nation is bleeding, and the Soviet economy has suffered enormous damage… They look at the Soviet Union as if it were a never-ending source of supplies. But even in this time of hardship our state helped the CPC with large amounts of hard currency. We helped even though we were running out of strength ourselves.”

The Communist Party’s participation in the war against Japan was quite odd at times. Russian Orientalist and Major General Boris Sapozhnikov called the line that separated the Communist forces from Japanese troops a line of blockade rather than a frontline. The blockade was quite peculiar, too, as both sides were engaged in contraband trade with each other. In fact, trade in opium grown by the communist forces was a significant source of income for the Party. 

That was a time of fierce clandestine struggle between the secret services of the Kuomintang, the CPC, and Japan, as well as the “state” of Manchukuo, and the Wang Jingwei government. And yet they maintained contact with each other via their representatives, plotted elaborate intrigues, and even cooperated, or pretended to cooperate, to a certain extent. In apparent bid to keep it secret after coming to power, the communists, acting on Mao Zedong’s orders, killed some of the best CPC secret agents who had worked during the anti-Japanese and civil wars. Pan Hannian stood out among them as the number three in the Communist Party’s intelligence service during the war, after Chen Geng and Li Kenong (let alone Zhou Enlai).

All this brings to mind one of Mao’s key “military principles” he formulated during the war: “You don’t touch me, I don’t touch you; you touch me, I touch you.” Mao’s words are not a figure of speech and must be taken literally: if Japanese or local militarist units move against the CPC, they will meet with a rebuff, but if they do not “touch” the communists, they will have no reason to worry. Until the communist forces achieve decisive superiority in strength, of course. 

Here is another of Mao’s statements, well known outside of China and made at a meeting with a Japanese delegation on 10 July 1964. He said that the Japanese aggression was “a blessing in disguise” for China. Hong Kong newspapers wrote that this statement had followed the Japanese delegation’s apologies, almost ritual by that time, for the war, and was intended to mean that the CPC would not have become the ruling party in China if it had not been for the war. 

Summing up, as a result of World War II, China, although it had not won a single strategic battle, freed its territory from the Japanese invaders and regained Chinese land seized by Japan. With the Allies actually doing all the work, China pushed for the annulment of unequal treaties with foreign states and succeeded, acquired the status of great power, became a founding member of the UN, and a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Renmin Ribao wrote that “this victory is worth celebrating perpetually in China.” 

In conclusion, let me say that the joint Russian-Chinese events marking the 70th anniversary of the victory in World War II took place amid a continuing anti-Soviet propaganda campaign in China, which raises questions, including about armed clashes on the Sino-Soviet border in 1969. For example, Renmin Ribao marked the 45th anniversary of the first skirmish on Damansky (Zhenbao in Chinese) Island by publishing an article by Major General Zhang Xuefeng, Commander of the 40th Group Army stationed in the Shenyang Military Region. In “looking over the history of wars in the world and China,” the general asserts in reference to Napoleon that “this outstanding person… could not even have thought that the French soldiers and officers would get so severely frost bitten” in Russia. He then turns to the events of 1941 outside Moscow when “the minus 45-degree ‘General Frost’ displayed itself once again in full vigor,” subsequently arguing that “winters in Northwest China are long and very harsh, and the ability of troops to fight in wintertime will be crucial for their success.”

An article written by Fan Changlong, Vice-Chairman of the CPC Central Military Commission and a member of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee, is also worth mentioning. It was published in early January 2015 in connection with the centenary of the birth of General Chen Xilian, who in 1969 had “thoroughly planned the theater of operations, stepped up preparations for war and strategic defense, organized troop management in a counteroffensive for self-defense on Zhenbao Island, and defended the dignity of the nation.”   

It seems that the 70th anniversary of the victory over fascism and militarism is a good enough reason for China to stop its anti-Soviet and anti-Russian propaganda campaign among its people and military.