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China-Russia Ties Are Also a Product of Similar Historical Memory

  • The two countries can point to a number of times they shared a similar fate of western invasion and attempted domination
  • Recently both suffered a similarly bloody WWII experience
  • WWII is sacred in Russia - Unlike the west Moscow would never fail to show up for an important WWII commemoration in another country over daily politics
  • Likewise Russians appreciate that China tying up millions of Japanese soldiers prevented Japan from joining the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union

Alexander Gabuev is a senior associate at Carnegie Moscow Center

This article originally appeared in Global Times


Chinese President Xi Jinping watched the military parade Thursday at Tiananmen Square to commemorate China's contribution to WWII and Chinese losses in the war. Xi was joined by 30 heads of state, with Russian President Vladimir Putin standing next to him. This was a repeat of the May 9 Victory Day parade on Moscow's Red Square, where Xi was Putin's guest of honor. The symbolic affinity between the two leaders represents not only a shared outlook on the current world, but also a shared view of history.

WWII plays an important role in national psyches of both Russia and China. For China, the war first started in 1937 - before the 1939 invasion of Poland that begun the war's European theater - and ended last. The country has lost tens of millions of lives. For the Soviet Union, the war claimed about 27 million lives - more than 13.7 percent of the population. 

Large parts of both countries were invaded, and local populations were engaged in guerilla resistance. The war touched nearly every family in both Russia and China. That is why the memory of victory in WWII and of the sacrifices made in the course of war is still remembered after 70 years. This anniversary may be the last one for surviving veterans, which only adds to the significance. 

Both states have made the memory of WWII a part of "patriotic education campaigns" over the last seven decades, aimed at boosting social cohesion. Many of current leaders in both countries were brought up to hold respect toward WWII, making V-Day one of the most important days in their respective national calendars.

This reality is very different from many former Allies nations, where the memories of WWII are still important, but don't play that foundational role. For example, WWII was no less an important experience for Great Britain, France and the US. This partially explains why these Western leaders skipped celebrations in Moscow and Beijing so easily this year due to current political disagreements with China and Russia over territorial disputes in the South China Sea or the war in Ukraine. 

Sometimes this attitude makes many Russians and Chinese feel not credited enough for what both nations contributed to the common victory.

It is not only the astonishingly high number of casualties which bring Russia and China together on this day. Chinese resistance played a vital role in immobilizing the Japanese army and preventing an attack on the USSR from the East. Without China, both the Soviet Union and the US would have a very different situation vis-a-vis Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. 

The present is also important. 

Russia is under international sanctions over its actions in Crimea and its role in Donbass war. For Putin, a special relationship with China and Xi, who is perhaps the closest person to him among all current global leaders, is very important. China is facing its own international difficulties because of intensified territorial conflicts in the South China Sea and over the Diaoyu Islands. Another layer of tensions was added by the US plan to introduce sanctions against selected Chinese companies charged with cyber theft. 

In this environment, it is also important for Beijing to show that it has some friends in the BRICS and SCO countries. Russia is, of course, a very important player in both groups.

With mutual trade falling by 30 percent this year due to low commodities prices and economic downturn in Russia, the symbolic dimension is playing an increasingly important role for both Moscow and Beijing.


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