History has become the latest battlefront between Beijing and Washington after a sharp rise in nationalism and anti-American sentiment around the 70th anniversary of China entering the Korean war.
The three years of conflict on the Korean peninsula, beginning with North Korea invading the South in June 1950 and ending in July 1953 with an armistice, are a central plank of the People’s Republic of China’s founding mythology.
Unlike in the US, where the conflict is sometimes referred to as the “forgotten war”, China regularly celebrates the “war to resist American aggression and aid [North] Korea” with great fanfare.
China furtively entered the war on October 19, sending what it called “volunteer” troops across the Yalu river. It was the first test of the Communist army’s ability to fight foreign troops without support from the nationalist Kuomintang, which had fled to Taiwan.
The official narrative of China’s decision to enter the war has shifted from a tale of socialist fraternalism against imperialist aggression into a great sacrifice by Chinese troops to protect the state and allow national rejuvenation, a favourite theme of President Xi Jinping.
This year, official propaganda has played up the US role in the war to a greater degree, an emphasis that had fallen out of vogue in the decades immediately following China’s entry into the World Trade Organization.
“There is a clear flare-up of anti-American sentiment,” said Ma Zhao, a history professor at Washington University in St Louis.
He cited as an example the newly renovated Korean war memorial in Dandong, which reopened last month after being closed for six years. At the memorial, US troops are singled out as “invasive forces” rather than the more neutral “United Nations forces” used before 2014.
On Monday, Mr Xi led a group of high-ranking Communist party leaders to visit a newly renovated exhibit on the war at the military museum in Beijing, the clearest act of veneration since he took office.
The spirit of the war would “inevitably inspire the Chinese people and Chinese nation to overcome all arduous obstacles and defeat all powerful enemies”, Mr Xi said in a report from the state broadcaster.
The anti-American sentiments coincide with China’s greater willingness to pursue its global interests — a trend that is often referred to as “wolf warrior” diplomacy, named after an explosion-packed nationalist action movie, Wolf Warrior 2.
Wu Jing, the star of Wolf Warrior 2, has once again been deployed in The Sacrifice, a blockbuster depicting a small band of Chinese troops holding off US forces in the final days of the Korean war that is due to be released on Friday.
The greater anti-American emphasis can also be seen in a 20-part documentary aired this month by China’s state broadcaster. The series casts Mao Zedong’s decision to send troops to aid North Korea as a reluctant sacrifice made necessary by US aggression.
The Communist army had intended to focus its efforts on “liberating” Tibet and Taiwan and rebuilding China’s economy after the civil war. But when the US entered the Korean civil war “it became an invasion” and China had no choice but to act, explained Qi Dexue from the Academy of Military Sciences PLA China, an army research institute, in the documentary.
This year’s celebrations are in stark contrast to five years ago, when commemoration of the war waned as China signed on to UN sanctions aimed at halting Kim Jung-un’s acceleration of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles programmes.
In recent years, tensions with Washington have changed the calculus for Beijing. “That the US is determined to contain China is an ever-greater consensus in China,” said Zhao Tong, an expert on the Korean peninsula at Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, a think-tank.
“China doesn’t think co-operating with the US on North Korea will do any good to improve the relations.”