COMMENT: China invokes history of Korean War, CCP and Xi in battle for hearts and minds

·Senior Editor
·8-min read
PHOTOS: The Battle of Lake Changjin's movie poster (Vernon Lee/Yahoo News Singapore) and President Xi Jinping of China (Getty Images)
PHOTOS: The Battle of Lake Changjin's movie poster (Vernon Lee/Yahoo News Singapore) and President Xi Jinping of China (Getty Images)

SINGAPORE — In an early scene of “The Battle at Lake Changjin”, the world’s top grossing movie so far this year, supreme leader Mao Zedong was in a contemplative mood prior to China’s entry into the Korean War.

“The foreigners look down on us. Pride can only be earned on the battlefield,” the Great Helmsman told a top commander of the Korea-bound Chinese People’s Volunteer Army (PVA). Mao even allowed his eldest son Anying to participate in the war, despite the vehement objection of the commander.

The glorification of the sacrifices made by Mao and the PVA in the state-supported movie is China’s clarion call to its people that the history of what it calls the War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea must never be forgotten, amid the rise of the emerging superpower to challenge the same American nemesis on the global stage today.

Since its release in September, the movie has been a domestic box-office smash hit with earnings of close to US$900 million as of late October, making it the second highest ever grossing movie in China. It is part of a series of history education campaigns this year by China to trumpet its achievements, with a focus on the period after the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) seized power in 1949. Above all, the campaigns aim to solidify the leadership of President Xi Jinping as he strives to write a new chapter in China’s history.

The release is timed to coincide with two momentous occasions this year: the 100th anniversary of the founding of the CCP and the 50th anniversary of China’s entry into the United Nations. Commissioned by the Central Propaganda Department and the National Film Administration, the movie cost more than US$200 million and boasted three marquee directors Chen Kaige, Tsui Hark and Dante Lam.

Associate Research Fellow James Char from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) told Yahoo News Singapore that the movie is part of the ongoing CCP-directed attempts to “reflect the greatness and correctness” of the party-state and to forge “Chinese nationalism shaped by the CCP”.

During the Battle of Lake Changjin, also known as the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, in late 1950, China staged a surprise attack against United Nations (UN) forces under US leadership around the reservoir area to relieve its besieged communist ally North Korea. The outcome of the battle ended the UN’s expectations of a reunification of the Korean peninsula and forced it to retreat south of the 38th parallel.

No deviation from official history allowed

Those who are familiar with the history of the Korean War and have watched “The Battle at Lake Changjin” would have noticed some glaring gaps in the movie. Among them, North Korea’s flagrant invasion of the South on 25 June 1950 that triggered the war was glossed over. Instead, the movie incorrectly dates the start of the war to the Battle of Incheon where US and UN forces staged an amphibious landing assault – almost three months after the North Korean invasion.

Not surprising, the movie has ignited anger among South Koreans over what they perceived to be China’s whitewashing of history. They lambasted China for a propaganda exercise highlighting the supposed selfless sacrifices of the “Chinese volunteers” who had helped the Korean people, when in reality they had wreaked colossal havoc and caused the two Koreas to be divided.

In China, there is no leeway to question the official narratives of the war, after a law making it an offence to question the contributions of “heroes and martyrs” was passed in 2018.

A former journalist, Luo Changping, had questioned the legality of China’s role in the war in a social media post about “The Battle at Lake Changjin” and was detained in October under the law. Slamming Luo for his “insult”, state-run Global Times newspaper said, “Infringing upon martyrs' reputations is tantamount to challenging the spiritual order of the whole country and nation. This is the reason why those people must be punished by law.”

To ensure indoctrination of the official version of the war’s history across China, CCP cadres have organised group outings to watch the movie. Such screenings have spurred patriotic fervour among the Chinese who look up to the PVA characters as inspirational role models, according to state media. As of late October, more than 115 million people in China had watched the movie in cinemas, the Xinhua news agency reported.

View of US Marines in winter gear as they fight entrenched Chinese troops during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, Korea, December 7, 1950. (Photo by PhotoQuest/Getty Images)
US Marines in winter gear fighting Chinese troops during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir on 7 December 1950. (PHOTO: PhotoQuest/Getty Images)

Mining Korean War for propaganda

Of the major wars that China was involved in after 1949, the Korean War is the ultimate treasure trove for the CCP to mine and serve its propaganda objectives on the big screen.

Barely a year after Mao prevailed against Kuomintang forces and seized power, communist China was involved in its first major international war as a key combatant against the might of the US and the UN. As such, the history of the war is crucial in cementing the foundation myth of the Mao era.

While China has been trumpeting an outright victory in the war since its ceasefire took effect in 1953, military historians generally agree that the outcome was effectively the pre-conflict status quo. With the release of “The Battle at Lake Changjin”, state media has been making parallels between the war and the current simmering Sino-US tensions, proclaiming that China would emerge triumphant again.

In the following decades, China was involved in several other international conflicts such as the border wars with the Soviet Union and India, and the Sino-Vietnamese War. However, the limited scope of some of the conflicts and China’s complex relations with the Soviet Union and Vietnam – its erstwhile communist allies turned foes – meant that these wars do not provide enough propaganda grist for cinematic fodder.

To further highlight the importance of the Korean War to China’s historical narratives, President Xi gave an assertive speech in October last year to mark the 70th anniversary of the start of China’s involvement in the conflict. The war had “resisted imperialist aggression and expansion,” Xi said. “Let the world know that the people of China are now united, and are not to be trifled with.”

A slew of other Korean War-themed movies have been released since the anniversary or are being planned in China. Among them was the controversial blockbuster movie “Sacrifice”, revolving around the Battle of Kumsong, which was released in China last year. The movie’s screening in South Korea was cancelled after it triggered a backlash in the country over the movie’s pro-China propaganda and historical distortion.

Due to the overwhelming success of “The Battle at Lake Changjin”, Chinese moviemakers are again tapping the battle’s propaganda goldmine. A sequel entitled “Water Gate Bridge” is in the pipeline, with its plot focusing on the attempts by Chinese forces to blow up the bridge in order to thwart the retreat of US troops.

"A Brief History of the Communist Party of China" book. (SCREENCAP: cypressbooks.com)
"A Brief History of the Communist Party of China" book. (SCREENCAP: cypressbooks.com)

History of China under Xi

China’s obsession with history this year is encapsulated by a 531-page book entitled “A Brief History of the Communist Party of China", also launched to coincide with the CCP’s centenary celebrations.

About a quarter of the book – only the third such edition ever – is devoted to Xi and his continuous efforts to build socialism with Chinese characteristics as he guides the CCP towards the next century.

In a speech ahead of the launch of the book, Xi proclaimed in February that the “best nourishment” for China is the history of his party’s revolution. “Our party has always attached importance to the study and education of party history, focused on using the party’s struggle history and great achievements to inspire fighting spirit and clarify the direction,” Xi said.

The book, however, downplays the darkest chapters of China’s modern history including the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square Massacre, and the calamitous mistakes made by Mao.

For instance, the 2010 edition of the book pinned the blame on Mao for the Cultural Revolution and had a chapter focused on the tumultuous event. The latest edition covers the event over a mere 13 pages, subsumed within a chapter. It avoids any criticism of Mao, stating that his “correct ideas” weren’t fully implemented.

Referring to the example of the Great Leap Forward as no longer being portrayed as a disaster in the book, RSIS’s Char said, “Political leaders throughout Chinese history are obsessive about the past, and the CCP is no different. The party has no qualms about rewriting its past to serve its political needs in the present.”

Xi warned against “historical nihilism” and attempts to “wantonly smear and distort the party’s history” in his speech. The battle for the hearts and minds of the Chinese people continues to be waged after the book launch. China has set up a hotline for anyone to report online criticisms of the CCP and its history. In line with this diktat, the book will become part of university examinations in China.

In a related development, the powerful Central Committee last week endorsed a resolution that called for upholding "the correct view of party history" under the leadership of Xi. The resolution underscores Xi’s unrivalled position as China’s most powerful leader since Mao and serves to fortify his place in history.

Char said, “The passing of the resolution shows Xi’s desire to portray himself as China’s latest philosopher king after Mao, and an Expert on Everything. We can infer that only he alone is capable of leading the party forward since he has already achieved so much.”

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