The Chinese government no longer denies social security to Nationalist army veterans who fought alongside the Chinese Communists in World War II. For many, recognition has come too late
"I’m sorry – we’re late,” Sun Mian, founder of New Weekly magazine and a veterans’ rights activist, told the family of Cheng Guangtai, who fought in the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), the longest-running single conflict in World War II, for the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT). His former commanders retreated to Taiwan in 1949 after losing the subsequent Chinese Civil War to the Chinese Communists. Cheng passed away a week before Sun came to visit his home in a village in rural Henan Province on July 19 – Cheng did not live to see the arrival of his carers.
In addition to delivering 6,000 yuan (US$981) in financial aid, Sun had planned to inform Cheng that the government had finally decided to grant financial support to him and his comrades-in-arms – a belated acknowledgment of their contribution to the nation. On July 4, days before the 76th anniversary of the outbreak of war with Japan on July 7, China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs announced that it would extend the social security system to cover KMT veterans, granting them priority status in rest homes and providing assistance to those in need of special care.
But for most of these veterans, the acknowledgment – 68 years after the defeat of Japan – came too late. Sun Mian told NewsChina that in many cases, by the time he and his team arrived at the home of a needy veteran, they would discover he had already died. As most of these veterans are now over 90 years old, with an average age of 93, the group is shrinking rapidly. According to Sun, many of those who remain are living in miserable conditions.
“The unfair treatment of KMT veterans of the Anti-Japanese War living on the Chinese mainland is a heavy page in modern Chinese history,” wrote senior media commentator Feng Qingyang in a commentary circulated widely on the Internet.
It is estimated that more than 3 million Chinese troops under the command of the KMT government lost their lives during the eight-year struggle against the Japanese invasion between 1937 and 1945. In 1946, only one year after Japan’s surrender, a fully-fledged civil war broke out in China, from which Mao Zedong’s Communists emerged victorious. After the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, KMT veterans of the war with Japan who were left behind the Chinese mainland were made a target of political persecution, and went from national heroes to “enemies of the people.”
Many veterans, especially officers, were persecuted or even executed for their part in the subsequent civil war in China’s various political upheavals between the 1950s and 1970s. For those who survived, their efforts in the war were tainted by association with the KMT. For more than 30 years, they and their offspring suffered discrimination in many respects, including employment and education, and were marginalized throughout society.
Their plight is exemplified by the life of Wu Qiyao, a decorated fighter pilot in the KMT air force. Serving as a captain in the “Flying Tigers,” the popular name for the the 1st American Volunteer Group (AVG) of the Chinese Air Force led by Lieutenant Claire Chennault, Wu shot down five Japanese aircraft during the war and was awarded 17 medals.
In December 1949, at the request of his father, a country squire in Fujian Province, Wu returned to the mainland from Taiwan, via Hong Kong. Despite initially receiving a warm welcome, Wu would soon find himself the target of political persecution. In 1951, his father was executed as a “counter-revolutionary,” and in 1954, Wu himself was thrown into prison, where he served 20 years until his release in 1974.
“There was no explanation of why he was arrested or why he was released,” Wu Yuan, son of Wu Qiyao, told NewsChina in a 2010 interview. Unlike Communist war veterans who enjoy a variety of benefits and entitlements, KMT veterans were excluded from the social security system. Without a stable income, Wu, a former ace fighter pilot, had to make a living as a pedal-cab driver in Hangzhou for 20 years after his release.
Wu’s story is similar to that of many KMT veterans. According to Sun Mian, living conditions for many veterans, shunned by society and often by their own families, are “worse than those of pigs and dogs,” in Sun Mian’s words.
“It is ironic that while KMT veterans on the mainland had no official recognition, compensation or any form of welfare, Japanese WWII veterans have been receiving generous compensation from the Japanese government, and their war dead are commemorated in the Yasukuni Shrine,” wrote Feng Qingyang.
The unfair treatment of KMT veterans largely stemmed from the official interpretation of the role of the KMT and the Communists in the country’s struggle against Japanese aggression. Largely deriving its legitimacy from its role in the Anti-Japanese War, the Communist Party of China downplayed the KMT’s contribution for several decades. In school textbooks, the KMT was said to have offered “passive resistance against Japan, but active aggression against the Chinese Communists.”
“[KMT veterans] are simply absent from war museums and history books on the mainland,” said Feng, the commentator.
This official interpretation met with no challenge until the late 1990s, when the liberalization of the publishing industry in the mainland led to a large number of publications on the anti-Japanese war, many of which deviated from the official interpretation and provided a more objective perspective on the war. Meanwhile, the political landscape in Taiwan was changing, with the KMT becoming an important force counterbalancing the influence of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party. This resulted in closer ties between the mainland and the KMT.
In a keynote speech on September 3, 2005, in commemoration of the 60th anniversary of Japan’s surrender in 1945, former Chinese President Hu Jintao said that the KMT forces were responsible for major campaigns in frontline battlefields, while “the Communist-led forces engaged in guerrilla warfare behind enemy lines.” It was the first time a top mainland leader had officially acknowledged that KMT forces, in addition to Communist forces, had played a leading role in the conflict.
In the meantime, a loosening of control over education, research and publication concerning this part of history, along with rising nationalist sentiment among younger generations of Chinese people, helped rekindle public interest in this section of history and those who had been involved. The fortunes of KMT war veterans gradually became an area of public inquiry, and many were appalled by their wretched living conditions.
Starting in 2005, several NGOs and networks were set up to offer aid to surviving KMT veterans of the war with Japan. One of the largest, “Bring Veterans Home,” founded by Sun Chunlong of Xinhua News Agency, identified 2,674 such veterans throughout the country. After providing assistance to KMT veterans for two years, Sun Mian, of New Weekly magazine, set up an initiative entitled “One-on-One Veteran’s Care” in 2013, and raised 13 million yuan (US$2.1m) for the purpose in just a month.
Prior to the July 4 announcement from the Ministry of Civil Affairs, many local authorities had already begun extending their social security networks to cover KMT veterans. For example, in Hangzhou, capital of east China’s Zhejiang Province, isolated or helpless KMT veterans were sent to local rest homes. When the story of the elite fighter pilot Wu Qiyao came to light in 2005, the local government provided Wu with a new apartment. Wu died in 2010.
But Sun Mian told NewsChina that these local initiatives and volunteer programs are far from adequate payment of veterans’ dues. According to Sun, restoration of dignity is more important than material support.
Sun said that once, after co-authoring a newspaper story about a veteran, he had posted the old man a copy. Overjoyed, the old man went around the village, showing the newspaper to everyone he met, proudly proclaiming: “I fought the Japanese.” “After arriving back home, exhausted from his tour around the village, the old man died,” Sun told NewsChina.
“Living in disgrace and humiliation for more than 60 years is a tragic existence for an individual,” commented Feng Qingyang.
In the eyes of many, in addition to the low-key extension of social security to cover them, the government should offer the war veterans an official apology – a small step toward the long overdue recognition of their war efforts.
“The country owes them medals,” said Sun.
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