A Story About World War II That China Would Like You to Hear

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Is the Sino-American alliance during World War II a basis for friendship and good feelings among superpowers today?



On May 6, 1944, U.S. army pilot Glen Beneda of the Flying Tigers was shot at by Japanese fighters while flying a combat mission over China. His plane caught fire, he ejected, and minutes later he landed in a rice paddy, frightening a group of Chinese workers doing manual labor. Injured and fearing for his life, Beneda managed to communicate using a pamphlet of simple translated phrases, persuaded the farmers that he was an American fighting the Japanese invasion, and was thereafter hidden in local homes. The farmers fed him, carried him many miles on a stretcher, and turned him over to anti-Japanese guerrillas, who undertook an even more dangerous journey: braving Japanese lines and an intense firefight, they got him to a Chinese army headquarters. He met military commander Li Zongren, who later became president of China, and was sent back to America with a Japanese pistol and a photograph as a parting gift.

Notes from the Aspen Ideas Festival -- See full coverage

This is, no doubt, an interesting story of Sino-American cooperation during World War II. Even more interesting is that the Chinese government, via the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, wants very much for us to know Beneda's story. They want us to know that he returned home to lead a full life, that he never forgot the deeds of the Chinese people, that he traveled back to that country twice to pay them his respects, and that he charged his children with making Sino-American friendship an inter-generational thing in the Beneda family. That's why they made a documentary about Beneda's story, "Touching the Tigers."

It was engrossing.

It screened Tuesday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, just as it did during its April 2011 premier. "All along he had been treated like a family member by his Chinese rescuers," the narrator stated. And as the film's closing credits rolled Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" played through.

History is strange, isn't it? As the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries is so eager to remind us, the United States and China were allies during World War II, or as the film puts it, "The world anti-fascist war and Chinese resistance war against Japanese aggression." The Japanese were our bitter enemies. But then they became our friends and allies. Communist China became our foe. Today, we are allied with Japan, partly to contain China.

So it makes sense for the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries to remind us of a bygone alliance and moving examples of China honoring it. If the Japanese come off looking badly all the better. But it's hard to know how to feel about their effort. Is the truth of the story sufficient to make it worth hearing? Does it matter that it's heavy-handed? Does China hope to gain anything beyond friendship by it? Does it matter? If propaganda's aim is to increase friendship and understanding among superpowers is it still a bad thing? Might it actually increase friendship? To what end? Finally, is this particular story just too good not to tell? Or is it a sign that, despite years of trading with China, large scale immigration, and ongoing diplomatic efforts, the World War II era produced the most potent anecdote of Sino-American friendship? If you're inclined to decide for yourself you can watch much of the film here.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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