The Chinese Civil War Continues

Beijing’s revisionist interpretation of the roles played by the KMT and CCP during the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression compounds the ideological gap that divides the two camps

Much has been said in recent years about the visits to China by retired Taiwanese generals, and for those who worry about leaks of military secrets and propaganda coups, the commentariat has not looked too kindly upon the golf rounds and fraternization. However, as the old brass from the two sides get closer to each other, cracks are beginning to appear in the relationship. Caused largely by ideology and different interpretations of history, those differences raise one important question: If retired and seemingly like-minded generals can’t see eye to eye on their past, how could Taiwan and China ever succeed in reconciling their fundamental differences and build a unified future together?

Apprehensions over the potential risks associated with the retired generals’ visits are not entirely unfounded. The symbolism of those exchanges can send the signal that Taiwan’s military has grown too close to China and that perhaps it would choose not to fight back should China decide to annex Taiwan by force. The propaganda value of those exercises is very much to Beijing’s advantage: If old enemies can now get drunk together on kaoliang and spend entire afternoons on an 18-hole course, why should the rest of the world not conclude, irrespective of the fact that those are retired generals, that the Taiwan “question” has been resolved?

The intelligence risks, meanwhile, are real, though they should not be overstated. Retired military personnel no longer have the security clearances that are necessary to access classified material; their knowledge may not be current; and they no longer have soldiers under their command. Nevertheless, they know active service personnel who have such access and powers, and retirees whose allegiances may have become confused over time could, in theory, serve as go-betweens, or point Chinese intelligence in the right direction.

However, the fraternization, and the concomitant threat to Taiwan’s national security, can only go so far. For one thing, only a small fraction of the retired generals who visit China are recruitment material for Chinese intelligence, be it for ideological reasons or more earthy considerations (e.g., financial gain, sexual partners and so on). With a few notable exceptions, their allegiance belongs to Taiwan or, to better reflect their preference, to the Republic of China.

Contested history

There is another factor that will make it difficult for retired Taiwanese generals to agree to cooperate with China on, say, unification or territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas, to areas on which Beijing has repeatedly called for joint efforts. That stumbling block is history. More specifically, the war of resistance against the Japanese during World War II, a conflict in which many of the said retired generals were involved. Right below the surface of rapprochement lie two fundamentally different narratives that, given the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) strict adherence to revisionist (and self-serving) interpretations, make full reconciliation a pipe dream. In other words, more than six decades after the guns went silent, the civil war continues.

The schism became apparent earlier this month when China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs issued a list of 300 “martyrs” of the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression to coincide with the 69th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in the Chinese theater of operations. Of the martyrs honored, two thirds were from the CCP, and one third from the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), along with eight foreigners. The ratio reflects the CCP’s official account of history, one that simply doesn’t jibe with either historical evidence or the KMT’s version of events. It was KMT forces that shouldered the great bulk of the fighting (and did most of the dying) during the Japanese occupation, while CCP militias played a minimal and peripheral role, choosing instead to conserve their forces and consolidate their positions in preparation for the resumption of the civil war once Japanese troops were flushed out. Beijing’s current version of that period emphasizes cooperation — and indeed there was a modicum of cooperation during the Second United Front — but the burden was never shared equally, not even close.

During an event in Hong Kong later in the same month to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the Whampoa Military Academy, a creation of the KMT, retired PLA major-general Luo Yuan acknowledged that the small showing by KMT soldiers among the 300 martyrs was “unsatisfactory” to the Taiwanese guests present at the ceremony. (Luo added that more KMT names would eventually join the list of “national heroes,” but did not elaborate)

Despite the admission, Luo, who though influential does not necessarily speak for the PLA, very much echoed Beijing’s position that the KMT and CCP worked jointly and as equals to defeat the Japanese. (Other official accounts claim that the CCP did most of the fighting, a view that is regurgitated in as recent a book as Martin Jacques’ When China Rules the World.) In the spirit of past joint efforts (and in recognition of their “heritage left by a common Chinese ancestor”), Luo opined that Taiwan and China, using either their coast guards or their navies, should cooperate in defending the Diaoyutai/Senkaku islets in the East China Sea against Japan and other territories in the South China Sea.

But the limitations of Luo’s — and Beijing’s — efforts to win retired Taiwanese generals over quickly became apparent. At a different setting, no less a figure than general Hau Pei-tsun, a former chief of the general staff in the ROC military, accused Beijing of misrepresenting history by portraying the CCP as a major participant in the war against Japan (he called their efforts a “minimal contribution”). The 95-year-old veteran of the war of resistance deplored the whitewashing he encountered during recent visits to war memorials around China, and warned that until Beijing stops lying about history, it should not expect any explicit cooperation from the ROC military.

Another sticking point for KMT stalwarts (such as General Cheng Ting-chung, a former ROC Army commander, who has made repeat trips to China) is Beijing’s refusal to admit that Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist party was the sole legitimate ruler of all of China during the war.

The CCP’s gamble

Hau’s account of whitewashing contradicts observations made by scholars such as Rana Mitter, who argues in his recent book China’ War With Japan 1937-1945 that starting in the 1980s, Chinese war museums “gave the Nationalist military a much more prominent role, moving away from the ahistorical position that the CCP had been in the forefront of wartime resistance.”

Writing in The Pacific Review, Qiang Zhang and Robert Weatherley also demonstrate that the narrative has changed. “Following years of rigid adherence to the traditional Maoist line that the CCP won the war almost single-handedly,” they write, “the party has finally moved towards a more realistic and honest assessment that recognises the pivotal role played by the KMT in defeating the Japanese.”[1] In their highly informative article, the authors argue that although the CCP rhetoric on the KMT’s role in the war became more permissive in the 1980s, a more significant reassessment occurred following the election of President Chen Shui-bian of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which compelled the CCP and KMT to work closer together. Alongside this development was the fact that having lost Maoism and developmentalism as means of legitimation, the CCP turned to nationalism to “diversify the foundations of its legitimacy.” The acknowledgement of the Nationalists’ role in the war was therefore part of the CCP’s “placatory policy on re-unification” in an effort to present the semblance of a united front to Chinese citizens “with itself at the very forefront.” However, as the authors argue, Beijing’s “gamble” may have backfired. By experimenting with greater access to information about the role of the Nationalists in the war of resistance after years of imposing a strictly different account, the CCP may have lost control of the debate, as freer inquiry has generated sympathy for the KMT among a number of people in China, as well as antipathy toward the CCP for its victimization of Nationalist war veterans, its uses of revisionism for propaganda purposes, and even for “betraying” the nation by avoiding conflict with the Japanese (see this account, for example).

The great divide

Whether the “lies” which general Hau was referring to are the result of efforts by the CCP under the more nationalist Xi Jinping to reassert his party’s control over the historical narrative, as the imbalance in the list of “martyrs” suggests, or simply stem from the fact that the more open discourse within China, which paints the Nationalists’ role during the war in a more favorable light, still isn’t enough for people like Hau and other KMT veterans, is anyone’s guess.

Coming from someone who is without doubt “China friendly” and amenable to future cooperation, Hau’s warning nevertheless speaks volumes: the KMT and CCP are still in major disagreement, and the dispute is unlikely to go away, especially if Beijing, which of late has been imposing further restrictions on information, insists on reasserting its own version of history lest it lose control of the narrative within China. Pride alone, and the disputes that arise when Beijing refuses to acknowledge the principal role and sacrifices of the Nationalists during the war (or the KMT’s success in creating the first modern Chinese state), will ensure that the war between the two sides, now fought on the battlefields of history, will continue. With that, the CCP’s dreams of cooperation will slip through its fingers.

We should also add that shared ancestry, or even a common birthplace, offer no guarantees that the retired generals from Taiwan will willingly ignore ideology and the democratic ideals that, in their eyes, are epitomized by the ROC (for example, General Cheng’s many references to Sun Yat-sen’s “three principles of the people” and “democracy” during his speech at the aforementioned forum in Hong Kong).

Because of its selective version of history (one that may even be out of touch with Chinese public sentiment), the CCP is unable to bring to its side retired ROC generals who, by birth and as a result of their past experiences, should more naturally identify as Chinese and would ostensibly be more amenable to some form of cooperation. Only an unexpurgated account of the Nationalists’ role in the creation of the modern Chinese state and their leadership during the war of resistance — an account that, we must add, would almost certainly undermine the CCP’s legitimacy and which therefore will not be forthcoming — would bring about full reconciliation with KMT stalwarts. Until then, the war will go on.

Luo Yuan may dream of cooperation between the former nemeses, but incompatible historical narratives are working against him. And even if Beijing did persuade those retired generals (and presumably a few politicians) to jump ship, the chances that they, in turn, could convince younger active forces, Taiwanese politicians, and the general public in a democracy to cooperate with the authoritarian regime on matters such as small islets at sea, let alone unification, are infinitely slimmer.


[1] Qiang Zhang and Robert Weatherley, “Owning up to the past: the KMT’s role in the war against Japan and the impact on CCP legitimacy,” The Pacific Review 26:3, 221-242, February 19, 2013. With thanks to Qiang Zhang for drawing my attention to this article.


Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei.

3 Responses to “The Chinese Civil War Continues”

September 11, 2014 at 6:43 pm, Mr. Wang said:

“When Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka visited Beijing in 1972 to restore Japan’s relations with China, a country that had been devastated by Japanese military aggression in the 1930s and ’40s, his host Mao Zedong allowed himself a moment of levity. Responding to Tanaka’s apology for what Japan had done during the war, Mao answered that there was absolutely no need to apologize. After all, he said, without the Japanese invasion, the Communist revolution would never have succeeded.”

There has been a thawing of relations between the KMT and CCP, but much still divides them.


September 12, 2014 at 4:13 pm, Christoph Thonfeld said:

This is, indeed, contested history. It should have been made a little bit clearer, though, that not only the CCP pursues an ideological agenda with its version of history but the KMT, too. What I have gleaned from Western scholarship on World War II in Asia rather points in a direction that the KMT – after some serious warfare against Japan in the early stages until 1942 – also began to sit back in the latter stages of the war to prepare for the civil war, effectively leaving the fighting – and winning! – of the war to the American and British forces.

While this is obviously one hotly contested issue between two highly ideological accounts of history, somebody like Hau Pei-tsun first and foremost simply follows the KMT version. What is more, he does not exactly seem to be a reliable source when it comes to confronting history as he himself became notorious not too long ago with reference to matters more closely related to Taiwanese history.

Two and a half years ago, on the occasion of the commemoration of the 1947 anti-KMT government uprising in Taiwan (commonly referred to as the “228 incident”) he went on record saying that only about 500 people were killed during the military crackdown. This is way below of what even KMT-friendly historians are ready to acknowledge and nowhere near of what is now commonly assumed to be accurate numbers. Regardless of what Hau’s intentions on that occasion might have been, one can hardly characterise his claim other than falsification of history with the aim of, yes, whitewashing the KMT’s role – exactly what he is accusing the CCP with a view to World War II now. Throwing bricks when living in a glass house, anyone??


June 25, 2015 at 5:51 pm, William Gillard said:

Good news? Old news? Obvious news? Or more exactly expected but not hoped for news? The fought each other with all and any weapon they had (even civilian villages), a little lingering propaganda was bound to raise tempers. If you watch late 2000’s(08-09) Chiense war movies there is this interesting ting about Nationalist DYING in defense. They ar elike the black dude in hollywood movies, good heroes, good plot dvice but ultimately doomed never to win. A representation with interesting consequences… Martyr and dead war heroes are fine, surviving ones who claim otherwise less so. “State memory starts when the last man who knew different is dead.”


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