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March 21, 2022 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 369

An Appeal To The History Books Loses The Plot

March 21, 2022 | By Alberto M. Fernandez*
Russia, China | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 369

"Because China has to make a decision for themselves about where they want to stand and how they want the history books to look at them and view their actions. And that is a decision for President Xi and the Chinese to make." – White House Spokesperson Jen Psaki, March 18, 2022[1]

It is unfair to be too hard on White House Spokesperson Psaki. The guidance and talking points are written by others and you use them at your peril. But the remarks are interesting. Whose history books should China worry about and who will be writing them? Is it not a bit, well, presumptuous that history will be determined by the views, prejudices, tastes and whims of a Washington elite?


Statue of Saint Michael the Archangel in Kyiv, Ukraine (installed in 2002).

The remarks struck home to me because of my own history. I am an American but born in Cuba and raised in Cuban-exile Miami. If any Americans remember the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, it is as a CIA screwup or as part of the maturing process of President John F. Kennedy. For Cuban Americans like me, the Bay of Pigs is a history of American betrayal, of U.S. perfidy, particularly by JFK himself, who cancelled airstrikes on Castro regime aircraft and watched the destruction of the invasion force while an American aircraft carrier impotently stood by and did nothing. Three of my relatives fought on the beaches of the Bay of Pigs.

One might say that this is personal history rather than accepted "consensus" or mainstream history. But beyond personal histories, one might ask how the Chinese see their own history, in relation to the West or in relation to Tibet, Eastern Turkestan, Hong Kong, or Taiwan, regions taken or threatened by conquest. We actually have a guide in the matter of how Chinese history textbooks describe their own relations with others.

Directly inspired by Stalinist guidelines, Chinese history textbooks present a skewed view of the Capitalist West, presenting it in the worst possible light. Anything that could be portrayed negatively about the United States and Chinese-American relations over the past two centuries that could either be ignored or manipulated is grist for the propaganda mill. So, the 1844 "unequal treaty" of Wanghia between the United States at the time of President John Tyler and Qing China is presented as akin to those treaties imposed by a powerful Great Britain on China, with the U.S. falsely and anachronistically presented as an accomplice and accessory to the British invasion of China during the late Qing government.

Moving to the 20th century, the CCP version of history ignored or downplayed anything that could show the Western democracies like the United States in a positive light regarding China. This history transmogrified into CCP fantasy included the U.S. role in trying to help China at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, the 1921-1922 Washington Naval Conference, during the Sino-Japanese War, and during the Second World War. All are presented in Chinese historical textbooks in ways to play down any American advocacy in support of China (and consequent American opposition to Japan from the 1920s) or any real, tangible help provided to China by the United States during wartime.

An element of Chinese-American relations that is definitely featured in Chinese history schoolbooks is the Korean War, a situation where PRC and U.S. forces actually fought each other directly.[2] But even here the coverage is skewed, of course, to present the United States as the aggressor. And this narrative does not just exist in books but in popular culture, with the biggest recent Chinese movie blockbuster – the 2021 "Battle at Lake Changjin" being about a Chinese People's Liberation Army defeat of American-led forces during the Korean War.[3] For us, the history of the Chosin Reservoir is one of the legendary feats of survival of the U.S. Marine Corps.[4] For the Chinese, we were the aggressors and we lost.[5]

Of course, Psaki was referring specifically to Russian President Putin's naked aggression against Ukraine, a brazen and brutal act that has galvanized Western public opinion, even if some of the responses – banning long-dead Russian composers, Russian cats, and parathletes – seem juvenile. But if you were a Tibetan or an Uyghur (or a Syrian or an Armenian from Artsakh), you might find Western obsession with that particular aggression somewhat strange or distasteful. Skeptics might say that Putin's great error in the eyes of history was not so much invading Ukraine, as it is his botching the war and letting it drag out with the possibility of a bloody, shaky "victory" or even outright Russian defeat. It has taken too long, attracting too much attention. History, even in the West, seems to have a way of coming to terms with a rapidly accomplished fait accompli, no matter how terrible. And, of course, wars of aggression or military campaigns aimed at "uniting lost territory with the motherland" are not unheard of before Ukraine.

But beyond China and Russia, the great irony in Psaki's appeal to the history books, is the current travail in the telling of America's own history. Some of the same elite bloviating about Ukraine have bought into a new narrative of the United States where it is irremediably racist and brutal, from 1619 to this day.[6] Activists who successfully pushed for the removal of a statue of President Theodore Roosevelt – a man whose face is on Mount Rushmore – in front of New York City's American Museum of Natural History called for the statue to be melted down and destroyed instead of being sent to the Theodore Roosevelt Library in North Dakota.[7] Jefferson, Washington, Saint Junipero Serra, Columbus, Lincoln, and so many more have felt the lash of the new cultural revolutionaries whose ire is based on a toxic narrative of American history, one that sees America and indeed all Europeans coming to the New World in a light very much like Putin, as barbarians and as war criminals.

Rather than an appeal to history, or even to morality, American policymakers would have been better served by an appeal to Chinese national interests (the same applies, in different circumstances, to understanding Saudi or Indian national interests). But here America has a problem. If China sees America rather than Russia as the great potential adversary or obstacle to its ambitions, then it makes perfect sense for them to equivocate. Both China and Russia (and Iran and Turkey, and others) have written and intend to write the history books where they are the triumphant victors and we are the defeated.

*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.

 

[1] Whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/press-briefings/2022/03/18/press-briefing-by-press-secretary-jen-psaki-march-18-2022, March 18, 2022.

[2] Commonreader.wustl.edu/the-korean-war-the-chinese-remember-while-americans-forget, October 21, 2021.

[3] Hollywoodreporter.com/movies/movie-reviews/the-battle-at-lake-changjin-review-1235046896, November 12, 2021.

[4] Pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/chosin, November 1, 2016.

[5] Taskandpurpose.com/entertainment/china-movie-battle-chosin-reservoir-noth-korea, November 29, 2021.

[6] Nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/1619-america-slavery.html, August 14, 2019.

[7] Nypost.com/2022/03/12/teddy-roosevelt-statue-should-be-melted-petition, March 12, 2022.

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