OPINION-The Soft Politics of a Mainland film: cross-border implications of “The Eight Hundred” in 1937 Shanghai

The popularity of a new mainland film, The Eight Hundred, has significant political implications for the relations between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan at a juncture when tensions are running relatively high.

The Eight Hundred is a war film officially released on August 21 to match the 75thvictory anniversary of China against the Japanese invasion. It was originally scheduled to be released on June 25, but for some unknown reasons the date of its release was postponed to August. Under the circumstances in which only 50 percent capacity of all ticket sales of cinemas is allowed because of the restriction on social distancing, the Eight Hundred is hitting the box office. Many film analysts said that the film’s popularity signals the re-emergence of the mainland’s movie industry, which suffered economically during the outbreak of Covid-19 in the early half of 2020.

The film is about a group of 423 soldiers of the Kuomintang’s 88th Army who defended the Sihang Warehouse in Shanghai bravely for four days and four nights from late October 26 to November 1, 1937. The number 800 was fictional in 1937 when the Kuomintang (KMT) commander, Xie Jinyuan, wanted to confuse the outsiders that the Sihang Warehouse was heavily guarded against the Japanese imperial army. The KMT Generalissimo, Chiang Kai-shek, ordered a small battalion of the 88thArmy to defend the warehouse courageously so that foreign countries in the Shanghai international settlement would be able to appreciate the bravery of the Chinese army against the Japanese aggression. In a sense, the battle of the Sihang Warehouse was designed by Chiang Kai-shek as an attempt to win the hearts and minds of the international world over Japan’s military aggression against China.

This film is shown at a politically sensitive time when both mainland China and Taiwan encounter relatively tense military relations, a problem compounded by the deteriorating Sino-American relations. 

The film was also shown at a time when the PRC President Xi Jinping on September 2 gave a speech on the 75thanniversary of the end of World War Two in Beijing. Accompanied by Premier Li Keqiang and Vice President Wang Qishan, President Xi emphasized that both China and Russia suffered tremendously during the Second World War – a remark implicitly pointing to the currently harmonious relationship between China and Russia as US-China relations are at a nadir after the US normalization of its relations with the PRC in January 1979. 

President Xi also remarked that the “Chinese people would never agree to any people and forces who try to distort the history of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), vilify the nature and purpose of the CCP … [and that] the Chinese people would never agree to any people and forces .. who try to impose their wills on China, change the course of China’s marching towards – and obstruct the hard work by the Chinese people to create – a better life.”

Xi’s remarks were perhaps implicitly directed at the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, whose open remarks have frequently directed at the CCP. President Xi’s comments could perhaps be interpreted as a bottom-line thinking of the CCP leadership over a whole range of issues, ranging from the PRC’s view of its sovereignty over Taiwan, and its position that the ongoing tense relations between China and India were due to the “responsibility of the Indian side.” Coincidentally, on September 4, the PRC Defense Minister Wei Fenghe held talks with the Indian counterpart Rajnath Singh in Moscow on how to de-escalate tensions along the border between China and India, because another clash erupted in late August when an Indian soldier reportedly died. The Chinese side insisted that India occupied a number of strategic heights on the southern bank of Pangong lake and that the Indian army consolidated its presence in Finger 2 and Finger 3 of the areas.

The strong showing of The Eight Hundred may not be fully understood by some China observers outside the PRC, for its popularity underscores the rise of assertive Chinese nationalism in the entire PRC, especially at a time when the relatively strong central government has been showing an effective leadership to control the spread of Covid-19 through its decisive intervention and strict measures in all provinces and cities.

The showing of the film reveals some features of Beijing’s handling of its political content and its soft but hidden appeal to Taipei.

First, while the film depicts the heroic resistance of Chinese soldiers against the Japanese army in 1937, some film critics outside the PRC have pointed to the obscure showing of the ROC flag, which was a target of attack by Japanese military planes according to the movie.

However, given the 1992 consensus reached between the CCP and the KMT, the meaning of one China is open to interpretations from both sides. This means that, from the PRC perspective, any showing of the national flag should and must be the PRC one. As such, the “obscure” way of handling the flag in the film was and is understandable.

This obscurity is arguably a hidden gesture to Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which has not yet recognized the 1992 consensus.

Second, the film is shown at a time when the Taiwan’s public sentiment rejects the “one country, two systems” for Taiwan’s political future; nevertheless, it praises the heroism of the KMT battalion, showing a kind of nostalgia on the part of the CCP about KMT rule in Taiwan.

Gone were the days when the former President Ma Ying-jeou met President Xi Jinping in Singapore in November 2015. Since the DDP returned to power in January 2016, the KMT has been performing in a lacklustre manner, except for the short-lived popularity of Han Kuo-yu, the former KMT mayor in Kaohsiung.

If the KMT in Taiwan remains relatively weak, the hope for another KMT rule in Taiwan is remote. Hence, the showing of the Eight Hundred in the mainland can be interpreted as a mainland nostalgia about the honeymoon period in which the CCP and KMT not only formed a united front against the Japanese invaders during the Second World War, but also reached an informal consensus on their “peaceful development” during the Xi-Ma meeting in Singapore in November 2015.

Third, if the film, the Eight Hundred, represents the soft united front efforts made by the CCP toward the KMT, the forthcoming visit by the former President of the Taiwan Legislative Yuan, Wang Jin-pyng of the KMT, to Xiamen to attend a Cross-Strait Forum deserves our close attention.

Wang’s visit will likely be politically significant because, under the new KMT chairman Jonny Chiang, the KMT Central Committee revised its position on cross-strait relations on September 2 by adopting Chiang’s eight points. First, “the ROC constitution is a legal foundation establishing Taiwan’s democracy and freedom and stabilizing as well as connecting cross-strait relations.” Second, the two sides “must respect the de factoexistence of the ROC and describe the space enjoyed by the ROC.” Third, the 1992 consensus was “a successful attempt by both sides to agree to disagree, and to search for mutual co-existence.” Fourth, the KMT “resolutely opposes Taiwan independence and the CCP’s ‘one country, two systems,’” because these two elements would “destroy the ROC’s sovereign national status.” Fifth, “the mainland should abandon the use of force against Taiwan and both sides should set an example of resolving disputes peacefully.” Sixth, Taiwan “should accelerate the process of legislating on cross-strait agreements and of promoting the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA).” Seventh, the KMT “will first set out the criteria of the interactions between the two sides, including KMT personnel who should follow this scope of behaviour.” Eighth, “the two official sides should protect human interactions from both sides to avoid disrupting normal exchanges, including the Taiwan people’s personal freedom and basic rights as well as the mainlanders’ right of being protected from discrimination in Taiwan.”

It seems that Chiang’s eight-point formula has moved the KMT slightly to “light blue.” The first three points appear to be politically acceptable to the CCP. The fourth point, however, needs the CCO’s readjustment of its policy toward Taiwan, for the KMT adopts a clear position of rejecting the “one country, two systems.” The fifth point will likely be negotiable from the PRC side, contingent upon how Taiwan “behaves.” The sixth, seventh and eighth points appear to be mild and acceptable to the CCP, but these three areas constitute the bone of contention between the KMT and DPP.

Johnny Chiang and his KMT advisers, according to Taiwan reports, want to dilute the 1992 consensus on how two sides interpret the meaning of one China – a position that was reportedly agreed by Ma Ying-jeou. The new KMT leadership hopes that, by diluting topics relating to cross-strait relations, the KMT would hopefully perform better in Taiwan’s county elections in 2022.

Hence, the ongoing changes of the KMT policy toward cross-strait relations are matched coincidentally by the popularity of the film, the Eight Hundred. If the ongoing popular film signals the soft united front effort and gesture made by the CCP toward the Taiwan side, then the forthcoming talks between Wang Jin-pyng of the KMT and the CCP side will deserve our attention.