Counting war casualties can be a politically-charged issue. That is particularly true in China, especially when it concerns the nation’s war with Japan that began in the 1930s.
Regular readers will know that China’s TV studio produce a lot of dramas about that struggle. In 2005, when China last commemorated its victory over Japan in the Second World War, only 20 war time dramas were broadcast on domestic TV channels. A decade on and the number has at least tripled. And that means a lot of fatalities: one estimate is that 700 million Japanese have died on China’s television screens over the years (see WiC187).
But how many soldiers were really killed in China during the conflict? This, it turns out, depends who you ask…
The Communist Party of China (CPC) and Taiwan’s Nationalist Party (KMT) have different views on the statistics. During the eight-year conflict, the KMT fought the Japanese and ruled most of the inland areas of China that remained under Chinese control. The CPC largely engaged in guerrilla warfare against the Japanese (fighting “behind the enemy lines” as the CPC jargon goes). Many have argued this gave it much-needed breathing space to strengthen its forces – they later became the People’s Liberation Army – so as to subsequently win the civil war against the KMT.
The subject emerged again this month in a weibo post by historian Zhang Yihe (the daughter of Zhang Bojun, one of the first ministers of Mao Zedong’s “new China”, but who was later persecuted as the “No. 1 rightist”). Citing “figures announced by Japan”, she wrote: “Up to 318,883 Japanese soldiers were killed by the KMT army; the Communist army killed 851; and the Soviet Union’s Red Army killed 126,607”.
These very specific estimates riled CPC supporters. “The KMT wouldn’t have needed to flee to Taiwan if the Communist army was so useless,” one of the more popular comments suggested.
Countering this were heavyweight jabs from Taiwan. Hau Pei-tsun, the former head of Taiwan’s military, told the BBC that the KMT should get 95% of the credit for defeating the Japanese. The CPC’s contribution, the former artillery man suggested, was worth little more than 5%.
“The Chinese Communists will say they were the major force resisting Japan, but that’s a way of cheating public opinion,” a spokesman for Taiwan’s defence ministry also told reporters. “Over eight years of resistance, it was our Republic of China forces who led the fight.”
That seems to fit with the claims that Zhou Enlai informed Joseph Stalin in 1940 that over a million Chinese had died fighting the Japanese before the summer of 1939, but that only 3% were CPC forces. In the letter Zhou is also said to have recognised that the KMT “united all the forces of the nation” in resisting Japan.
Nonetheless, Xu Yan, a retired PLA general, is insisting that the CPC’s contribution was also decisive. “Without the CPC forces harassing the Japanese army behind the enemy lines they could throw everything to the main battlegrounds of the KMT,” he claimed in the Global Times.
Most of the media has held back from commenting on such a sensitive subject. Indeed, the lack of official rebuttals points to how Beijing has softened its stance. After ignoring the KMT’s contribution for years, the CPC has quietly acknowledged more of its efforts. Some netizens discuss the topic online, offering feisty opinions. “The KMT’s wartime capital in Chongqing suffered heavy bombing by Japanese air forces. Hardly a shell fell on Mao Zedong’s base in Yan’an,” one netizen noted. “You tell me which place saw greater resistance to Japanese invasion.”
Meanwhile a new report from the State Council this week claims that the number of Japanese troops killed, wounded or captured between 1931 (when Japan occupied Manchuria) and 1945 was 1.5 million.
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