“Because China has to decide for itself where it stands and how it wants the history books to look at it and see its actions. And that’s a decision for President Xi and the Chinese to make.” – White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki, March 18, 2022
It’s unfair to be too hard on White House spokesman Psaki. Tips and talking points are written by others and you use them at your own risk. But the comments are interesting. What history books should China be worried about and who will write them? Isn’t it a bit, well, presumptuous that history is determined by the opinions, biases, tastes and whims of a Washington elite?
Statue of Saint Michael the Archangel in kyiv, Ukraine (installed in 2002).
The remarks struck me because of my own story. I am an American but born in Cuba and raised in Miami in Cuban exile. If Americans remember the 1961 invasion of Cuba in the Bay of Pigs, it is either as a mistake by the CIA or as part of President John F. Kennedy’s maturing process. For Cuban-Americans like me, the Bay of Pigs is a story of American betrayal, of American perfidy, especially on the part of JFK himself, who called off airstrikes on Castro regime planes and witnessed the destruction of the invasion force as an American aircraft carrier stood helpless and did nothing. Three of my relatives fought on the beaches of the Bay of Pigs.
You could say it’s a personal story rather than an accepted “consensus” or traditional story. But beyond personal stories, one can wonder how the Chinese see their own history, in relation to the West or in relation to Tibet, East Turkestan, Hong Kong or Taiwan, regions taken or threatened by the conquest . We actually have a guide to how Chinese history textbooks describe their own relationships with others.
Directly inspired by Stalinist directives, Chinese history textbooks present a biased view of the capitalist West, presenting it in the worst possible light. Anything that could be portrayed negatively about US-China relations over the past two centuries that could be ignored or manipulated is water for the propaganda mill. Thus, Wanghia’s “unequal treaty” of 1844 between the United States under President John Tyler and Qing China is presented as akin to those treaties imposed by a powerful Great Britain on China, the United States being falsely and anachronistically presented as accomplices. and incidental to the British invasion of China under the Qing government.
Moving into the 20th century, the CCP version of history ignored or downplayed anything that could show Western democracies like the United States in a positive light regarding China. This history turned CCP fantasy included the role of the United States in trying to help China during the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, the Washington Naval Conference of 1921-1922, during the Sino-Japanese War and during World War II. All are presented in Chinese history textbooks in such a way as to minimize any American advocacy of China (and subsequent American opposition to Japan from the 1920s onwards) or any real and tangible aid provided to China by the United States in wartime.
One element of US-China relations that is definitely in Chinese history textbooks is the Korean War, a situation where PRC and US forces actually fought each other directly. But even here the coverage is skewed, of course, to portray the United States as the aggressor. And that narrative doesn’t just exist in books but in popular culture, with China’s biggest recent blockbuster movie – 2021’s “Battle of Changjin Lake” about a defeat of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army against forces led by the United States during the Korean War. For us, the story of Chosin Reservoir is one of the legendary survival feats of the US Marine Corps. For the Chinese, we were the aggressors and we lost.
Of course, Psaki was specifically referring to Russian President Putin’s naked assault on Ukraine, a brazen and brutal act that galvanized Western public opinion, even though some of the responses – banning long-dead Russian composers, Russian cats and parathletes – look juvenile. But if you were a Tibetan or a Uyghur (or a Syrian or an Armenian from Artsakh), you might find the Western obsession with this particular aggression somewhat odd or distasteful. Skeptics might say that Putin’s big mistake in the eyes of history was not so much in invading Ukraine, but rather in botching the war and letting it drag on with the possibility of a bloody and shaky “victory” or even an outright Russian defeat. It took too long, attracting too much attention. History, even in the West, seems to have a knack for dealing with a quickly accomplished fait accompli, no matter how terrible. And, of course, wars of aggression or military campaigns aimed at “uniting the lost territory with the homeland” are not unknown before Ukraine.
But beyond China and Russia, the great irony of PSAKI’s appeal to the history books is the current work in telling America’s own history. Some of the same elite bloviating over Ukraine have embraced a new narrative of the United States where it is irredeemably racist and brutal, from 1619 to the present day. Activists who successfully had a statue of President Theodore Roosevelt – a man whose face is on Mount Rushmore – removed from outside the American Museum of Natural History in New York have called for the statue to be melted down and destroyed instead of being sent to the Theodore Roosevelt Library in North Dakota. Jefferson, Washington, Saint Junipero Serra, Columbus, Lincoln and so many others have felt the whippings of new cultural revolutionaries whose anger is based on a toxic narrative of American history, which sees America and makes it all Europeans come to the New World. in a light very close to Putin, as barbarians and war criminals.
Rather than an appeal to history, or even morality, American policymakers would have been better served by an appeal to Chinese national interests (the same is true, under different circumstances, of understanding Saudi national interests or Indians). But here, America has a problem. If China sees America rather than Russia as the great adversary or potential obstacle to its ambitions, then it makes perfect sense for it to dither. 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 vanquished.
*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.
 Whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/press-briefings/2022/03/18/press-briefing-by-press-secretary-jen-psaki-march-18-2022, March 18, 2022.
 Commonreader.wustl.edu/the-korean-war-the-chinese-remember-while-americans-forget, October 21, 2021.
 Hollywoodreporter.com/movies/movie-reviews/the-battle-at-lake-changjin-review-1235046896, November 12, 2021.
 Pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/chosin, November 1, 2016.
 taskandpurpose.com/entertainment/china-movie-battle-chosin-reservoir-noth-korea, November 29, 2021.
 Nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/1619-america-slavery.html, August 14, 2019.
 Nypost.com/2022/03/12/teddy-roosevelt-statue-should-be-melted-petition, March 12, 2022.