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The Marco Polo Bridge Incident: a History That Continues to Resonate

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Beijing.

The bridge, upon which history this way passed, still stands. Renovated, but with some of the original paving slabs that echoed to the hobnailed boots of Japan’s Imperial army. It was on this bridge that an incident took place that some historians now believe may have been the first shots of WWII.

Certainly the forces that were unleashed, the mass and deliberate targeting of civilians and urban areas, the twisted beliefs of ethnic superiority, were characteristics of the global conflagration that up until now was entirely deemed to have started in 1939.

We are marking the anniversary of Germany and Japan’s surrender in 1945, but  it is legitimate to suggest that the incident that sparked the conflict that became WWII occurred not in Poland in 1939 but in China, near this eleven-arched bridge on the outskirts of Beijing, in July 1937.

Let’s look at the undisputed facts. Japan occupied Manchuria in 1931. A wider invasion began in 1937, and by the time Japan surrendered in 1945, between 13 and 20 million Chinese people died. Refugees trying to flee the fighting numbered 100 million.

The incident, in fact a bloody skirmish between Chinese and Japanese troops on and near the bridge, ignited initially by reports of a missing Japanese soldier who was later found, sparked a sweeping Japanese invasion of China, and became known as the Marco Polo Bridge Incident.

The conflict is referred to in China as the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (1937-45) and the Anti-Fascist War.  Japan’s expansionist policy of the 1930s, driven by the military, was to set up what it called the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

A sphere. Such a mundane word. “The Great Victory and Historical Contribution” exhibition at the Museum of the War of the Chinese People’s Resistance Against Japanese Aggression, located inside the Wanping Fortress, near the bridge, was opened on July 7, 1987 on the incident’s 50th anniversary. It shows the consequences of trying to establish the sphere.

Its air-conditioned halls display the relics of war; rusty rifles,  machineguns, tattered tunics,  and from the walls hang grainy black and white pictures that bear testimony to the brutality inflicted upon Chinese civilians. More than 2,800 artifacts and 1,000 picures are on display. They assault the senses. A spiked metal cage to torture captives, images showing heads mounted on stakes and the remains of a raped woman are painful to look at and are a juddering reminder that before Britain stood alone, China stood alone.

But hold on. Was it not the Kuomintang, the nationalists, who largely engaged the Japanese? The Communists, who defeated the Kuomintang in  1949, were in disarray in 1937. Didn’t Mao Zedong tell Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka in Beijing in 1972, when diplomatic relations were restored between China and Japan, that if it wasn’t for the Japanese the Communists would never have taken power as the invasion gave them time to regroup under an umbrella of resistance to Japan.

The museum, not surprisingly, plays down this aspect. Some of the captions do mention the Kuomintang but generally speaking one is left with the impression that the Communists were largely responsible for fighting, or at least organising the resistance, to the Japanese. This will also be the theme when Russian President Vladimir Putin comes to Beijing as guest of honour for a military parade on Sept 3 marking the 70th anniversary of the conflict’s end.  The war ended in Europe in May 1945 and Japan surrendered in August. But the official Japanese surrender was received on the USS Missouri on Sept 2 and the Chinese delegation on the ship announced a three-day holiday from Sept 3 to mark victory over Japan.

The leaders of Russia and China want to present what they claim is a new political front. Leaders from the Allied countries were invited but none will attend. China accuses the West of generally ignoring its role in the war. In this they are right, the Chinese theatre is only now beginning to be appreciated as a factor in tying down Japanese troops. But also the Communists were none too keen on discussing the war in case it gave credence to the Kuomintang. That has changed. A more assertive Beijing feels it can bolster its reputation by establishing direct lines between resistance to Japan, its legitimacy and its stance against Japan in maritime disputes.

Russia too has a grievance as events in Ukraine meant that no major Allied president or prime minister went to Moscow in May for their parade. In defeating the Nazis, it is said that the US gave materiel, Britain gave time but the Soviet Union gave blood and more. Four out of every five Nazi soldiers were killed on the eastern front. Chinese president Xi Jinping and Putin have common  ground, not least pressing domestic concerns, including  stalling economies and setting the agenda of a history that unites. No mention of the cultural revolution or June 1989, too politically sensitive and the “wrong type’’ of history.

A new grand alliance? No, at least not yet. China is more outward looking, it wants to engage, on its terms sure, with the West. It is seeking to open up the  “Stans” and central Asia economically and build an efficient, speedy and safe land trade route to Europe. It is also undergoing an economic transformation with less reliance on low-end manufacturing. Russia, hit by sanctions over its actions in Ukraine, views the West with greater suspicion. Beijing and Moscow have formed a partnership of convenience, based, in part, on ignoring inconvenient truths.

But if the past is another country, then in China that country is Japan. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is viewed as insincere in Beijing for his comments regarding Japan’s wartime actions. Supremely ironic that Japan, a country where the apology is an art form, should find itself criticised over its inability to convince.

History that passed on that bridge is still passing.

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Tom Clifford is a freelance journalist and can be reached at: cliffordtomsan@hotmail.com.

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