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In Xi’s Homage to Korean War, a Jab at the U.S.

SEOUL, South Korea — First China’s leader, Xi Jinping, visited the national military museum in Beijing and hailed the country’s “victory in the war to resist American aggression and aid Korea.” Then he wrote a public letter to veterans in a retirement home in Sichuan.

On Friday, culminating a weeklong commemoration of the Korean War, he delivered a pugnacious and at times visceral homage to those who sacrificed against the country’s enemies, the United States foremost of them all.

“The Chinese people don’t go looking for trouble, but nor do they fear it,” Mr. Xi said before hundreds of party officials, military officers and aged veterans in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. “Confronted with any hardships or dangers, the calves of their legs will not shake, and their backs will not bend.”

For Mr. Xi and the country’s propagandists, the anniversary of China’s entry into the Korean War 70 years ago this week could hardly have come at a more opportune time. The country, in their telling, is once again facing an unprovoked assault by a superpower determined to thwart China’s rise. This time the United States, under President Trump, has targeted China’s trade policy, its technological advances and its territorial ambitions.

The anniversary unfolded with a barrage of commemorative events, exhibitions, television documentaries and feature films. They all conveyed the same message: The Chinese people have stood up to the United States before and, regardless of the costs, they will again.

Another Chinese leader, in a different era, might have moderated the rhetoric before the United States election to avoid alienating the American political and business establishment. Not Mr. Xi.

“Seventy years ago, imperialist invaders brought the flames of war burning to the doorway of the new China,” he said on Friday. “The Chinese people have a deep understanding that in responding to invaders, one must speak to them in a language that they understand.”

The events commemorating the war — long known as the “forgotten war” in the United States — have followed a series of military drills and an outburst of propaganda. Together they have signaled a hardening resolve against the United States and further raised tensions inflamed by the coronavirus pandemic and President Trump’s continuing derision of China.

Popular opinion in both countries has soured as a result, creating animosity that is not likely to ease soon, regardless of the outcome of the American election, which is now less than two weeks away.

“Seventy years ago, China was poor and weak,” Cheng Xiaohe, an associate professor at the School of International Studies at Renmin University in Beijing, said in an interview, echoing the theme of Mr. Xi’s speech on Friday. “Facing the United States as a superpower, China fought. Is there anything China dare not do now?”

History in China has long been repurposed to fit political needs, leaving little room for a frank reckoning with the past. In the last two decades, some Chinese historians quietly challenged the heroic official narrative of Mao’s decision to thrust the country into the Korean War, fought from 1950 to 1953. But that story has long been a pillar of the founding mythology of the People’s Republic of China, and Mr. Xi relived its highlights in his remarks.

Coming barely a year after the country’s founding, the war was a searing and painful test. When it broke out, China remained at war with the nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek that had retreated to Taiwan, and also faced armed resistance to its invasion of Tibet.

Chinese forces crossed the Yalu River to aid the retreating North Korean army on Oct. 19, 1950; six days later, they fought their first battle with the allied troops fighting under a United Nations mandate. According to China’s official account, which Mr. Xi cited on Friday, 197,000 Chinese died in the war, though historians broadly agree that the actual toll was much higher.

Commemorations of the war have ebbed and flowed in intensity over the decades for reasons having little to do with the war itself.

Guan Ling, a commentator with Duowei News, the Chinese-language site based in New York, has chronicled how major anniversaries have reflected the country’s respective leaders and geopolitical circumstances.

Mao Zedong played down the 20th anniversary in 1970 as he sought a normalization of relations with the United States, whereas Jiang Zemin in 2000 emphasized the 50th, which occurred in the wake of the American bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Serbia during the Kosovo war the year before.

John Delury, a professor of Chinese studies at Yonsei University in Seoul and author of a forthcoming book on the Korean War, said that Mr. Xi had delivered a similar speech as vice president 10 years ago, although in substance and tone it was less combative.

“There’s a different resonance now,” Mr. Delury said. “He’s hitting the stand-up-to-America theme pretty hard now. It’s getting intense.”

Mr. Xi also appeared to have a domestic audience in mind. He and the rest of the party leadership are scheduled to gather next week in a closed-door assembly to discuss China’s priorities for the next five years. He used Friday’s speech to restate his case for the primacy of the Communist Party leadership, with himself at the core.

It is a theme he has often invoked amid the pandemic, which, despite early missteps, his government has managed to bring under control domestically. Even the sight of a cadre of hundreds in a crowded hall — all wearing masks — was a striking contrast to bans on gatherings in many countries.

Mr. Xi’s speech had a strikingly hawkish tone, describing at one point the sacrifices of soldiers who had used their bodies as shields against a far superior force. “They smashed the myth that the American military was invincible,” he said.

Since coming to power in 2012, Mr. Xi has reorganized the Chinese military, trying to create a modern, multipronged fighting force, a model that he said the Korean War first taught the People’s Liberation Army.

For most in China, the war has become a distant memory. Its remaining veterans are gradually dying off, and Chinese society today is unimaginably transformed from the impoverished China of the 1950s. The country has not experienced war now since 1979, when it invaded Vietnam and was routed.

Lest the idea of war become an abstraction, the party’s propaganda apparatus has churned out dozens of programs. A six-part documentary aired each night this week on state television. The nightly news casts have featured not only Mr. Xi’s appearances, as always, but also profiles of soldiers who fought and died.

Film studios have responded to government directives and produced a series of feature films, including an animated movie, called “Salute to Heroes,” that is aimed at younger audiences.

Also having its opening on Friday was a blockbuster about the war starring Wu Jing, the lead actor in the “Wolf Warrior” action film franchise that has given a name to Chinese diplomacy of late. The film depicts Chinese soldiers keeping a vital river crossing open against relentless American bombardment. Its title in English: “The Sacrifice.”

Near the end, an American pilot marvels at the tenacity of the soldiers below. He radios back to his commanders that their attacks have failed. “There’s nothing we can do to stop them.”

Steven Lee Myers reported from Seoul, South Korea, and Chris Buckley from Sydney, Australia. Claire Fu and Amber Wang in Beijing contributed research.

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