China, and Xi, commemorate the Korean War as a victory over America

By GERRY SHIH | The Washington Post | Published: October 23, 2020

It was a time of Chinese sacrifice and bravery in the face of U.S. aggression. It was a just war in which the hardscrabble, newly established People's Republic reluctantly stood up to American imperialists - and the Americans, richer but hardly tougher, were beaten.

That may not be the complete story of the Korean War, a major 20th century conflict that touched off when North Korea invaded the South in June 1950, drawing in the United States, the United Nations and eventually China.

But this week, that tidy narrative has overwhelmed China' state newspapers, dominated the airwaves and even filled box offices as the Communist Party rolled out an unprecedented week of commemorative events and coverage to mark 70 years since Chairman Mao Zedong sent Chinese forces across the Yalu River and ground the Americans to a stalemate.

With U.S.-China tensions at the highest point in years, Chinese leader Xi Jinping hammered home the message in a blistering televised address about the "magnificent" War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea, as the Korean War is commonly referred to in China.

"Seventy years ago, imperialist invaders blazed the flames of war all the way to the doorstep of the New China," Xi told his nation as he recounted how in 1950 the U.S. Navy occupied the Taiwan Strait, and American forces crossed into North Korea and bombed its border region with China. But the Chinese and North Koreans fought back, he said, and "broke the myth of the invincibility of the U.S. military" to force a truce.

"We Chinese know well we must speak to invaders with the language they understand: So we use war to stop war, we use military might to stop hostility, we win peace and respect with victory," Xi said. "In the face of difficulty or danger, our legs do not tremble, our backs do not bend."

Xi's speech was the climax of week that saw a flurry of official publications and media productions that focused not so much on the Koreas at the center of the historical conflict, but on a larger foil - the United States - and above all, China's century-long quest to rebuff foreign invasion and realize its rightful destiny, which has been the overarching theme of Xi's administration.

"There is a strong emphasis this year on the 'resisting America' side of the equation, which makes sense," said John Delury, an expert on modern Chinese history and the Korean Peninsula at Yonsei University. "U.S.-China tensions are rising day to day."

Since the beginning of the Trump administration's trade war, China has bemoaned the growing conflicts over trade, technology and geopolitics as one-sided U.S. bullying and a return to Cold War-era thinking.

Although Xi has dialed up nationalist sentiment and urged his countrymen in speeches to brace for hardship, he has generally avoided overt references to war with the United States.

The Korean War from 1950 to 1953 was the last time the two countries fought a large-scale conflict. It was marked by grinding battles over rugged, often frozen mountains, atrocities and a civilian death toll of more than 3 million Koreans. Sometimes called the "Forgotten War" in the United States, the combatant death toll was devastating for the two Koreas and China, which lost 180,000 soldiers, and the United States, which suffered 33,000 deaths.

After Mao reluctantly gave Kim Il Sung, the North Korean leader and Communist ally, a green light to invade the South in June 1950, Kim nearly took the entire Korean Peninsula before United Nations troops led by the United States pushed him back. General Douglas MacArthur drove on past the 38th Parallel that divided the Communist North with the U.S.-backed South, and as his forces drew near the Chinese border, Mao urged his Politburo to respond. On Oct. 19, 1950, China sent troops into Korea, where they would stay for nearly a decade and help cement a Chinese-North Korean alliance that has vexed Washington to this day.

Time and again this week, Chinese leaders pointed to that moment as a juncture when China turned from a victim of bullying by Japan and the West to a respected power under Communist leadership.

On Monday, Xi led the Party's senior leadership, the Politburo Standing Committee, on a trip to a Beijing military museum where he urged them to "carry forward the great spirit" from the war "and strive for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation."

On Wednesday, the People's Liberation Army's official newspaper ran a 10,000-word article recounting how ragged troops, relying on "inadequate weapons and food the U.S. Army wouldn't bother throwing into furnaces or feeding to livestock," held onto strategic hills under U.S. bombardment.

"The Chinese have a red line and a bottom line . . . to safeguard the country's core interests," the essay said. "It was so in the past, it is so now, and it will be so in the future."

On Friday, movie theaters released a new film called "Sacrifice," which Chinese analysts predict could be the world's highest-grossing film this year at nearly $800 million because schools and state companies countrywide are expected to organize viewing trips. An animated feature was also released for children on Friday, and authorities are fast-tracking a historical film by celebrity director Zhang Yimou about a young Chinese sharpshooter who sniped 214 Americans.

"With historical facts, the film will make audiences once again realize although the U.S. is strong, it is not unbeatable," Tan Fei, producer of "The Coldest Gun," told state media.

Meanwhile, the Central Military Commission rolled out a slick, six-episode series "For Peace," only to be one-upped by the state broadcaster China Central Television, which dropped a 20-part documentary.

The treatment of history in the productions has been telling, said Delury from Yonsei University. Mao's role in pre-war deliberations is often omitted. The roots of the conflict are condensed into a one line stating simply: "The Korean Civil War erupted on June 25, 1950."

The United States was also characterized as manipulating multilateral bodies like the United Nations to intervene on behalf of South Korea - a resonant point at a time when Washington and Beijing are vying for influence in international bodies. Britain is also portrayed sympathetically as an unwitting accomplice to U.S. scheming, Delury said.

Adam Cathcart, a specialist on Sino-Korean history at the University of Leeds, said China has traditionally paid homage to the war with particular emphasis on veterans. But the focus has been subtly different each decade.

Commemorations were muted in 1990, coming shortly after the killing of student protesters in Tiananmen Square and China's isolation on the world stage. The 2000 event was marked by a domestic emphasis on rehabilitating veterans who were discredited during the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution.

China highlighted its closeness with North Korea in 2010 at a moment when the Kim dynasty was preparing for the potentially unpredictable transition of power from Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Un, Cathcart said.

"In 2020, it's about proto-superpower conflict and less about a move to rescue a beleaguered fellow socialist republic," he said. "It's now about Xi's catchphrases and worldview: This war was part of the great renaissance of the Chinese nation."

(c) 2020, The Washington Post.