In a move signaling Beijing’s hope to foster better ties with the United States, China on Monday celebrated the contributions of two elderly American World War II veterans from the renowned ‘Flying Tigers’. This effort is seen by many as an attempt by both nations to look back to their shared history, perhaps seeking lessons for the present.
Mel McMullen, nearing the century mark in age, and Harry Moyer, who celebrated his 103rd birthday on the same Monday, are among the last living members of the U.S. Army Air Force command. This unit, distinguished in aiding China during its conflict against Japan, earned its popular moniker ‘The Flying Tigers’ during the intense battle period of WWII.
During a heartfelt ceremony held at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, McMullen vividly recalled the acts of bravery displayed by Chinese farmers. These unsung heroes risked their lives, concealing fallen American aviators from the vigilant eyes of the Japanese forces. Moving them secretly by day and relocating them discreetly from one village to another under the cloak of night, these farmers exhibited sheer determination and valor. McMullen, reflecting on these moments, stated, “I think that’s something we should all understand,” emphasizing the universality of human values. He went on, saying, “People are the same. Their governments may be different, but the people actually always have one desire, and that is to live and to raise their families in peace, and in the customs of their predecessors.” His heartfelt words were met with resounding applause from those in attendance.
This renewed gesture of camaraderie follows a series of endeavors by the two superpowers to mend a relationship that has, in recent years, become frayed. Disputes on trade policies, technological advances, security concerns, and human rights have all played their part. Yet, both the U.S. and China seem committed to finding common ground.
Notably, these bilateral exchanges have seen a resurgence after almost four years of silence, caused partly by the COVID-19 pandemic and the growing mistrust between the world’s dominant economies. Earlier this month, six U.S. senators landed in China, marking the first such congressional delegation since 2019. Furthermore, a visit by California Gov. Gavin Newsom last week became noteworthy as it represented the first by a U.S. state leader in recent memory.
In the sphere of cultural exchange, the renowned American Ballet Theatre graces Shanghai’s stages this week. They are to be followed by the Philadelphia Orchestra, which is set to embark on a tour commemorating the 50th anniversary of its iconic 1973 visit to China.
Both nations are expressing a keen interest in facilitating more “people-to-people exchange,” in the words of U.S. Ambassador to China, Nicholas Burns. Speaking at the Flying Tigers ceremony, held in a quaint embassy gymnasium, Burns candidly remarked, “We’re at a difficult moment in the U.S.-China relationship. We are in many ways rivals, strategically… But the two peoples of the countries have always been together.”
However, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi, after his recent visit to Washington, cautioned against excessive optimism regarding the upcoming meeting between Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping. Despite these cautionary words, U.S. officials have indicated that both sides are in agreement to hold a meeting during the forthcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco.
Accompanying the veterans were the next generations – children and grandchildren of the original Flying Tigers members, along with elected officials from California. Adding to the poignancy of the event, Nell Calloway, the granddaughter of their former commander, Maj. Gen. Claire Chennault, stood beside the honored veterans.
The Flying Tigers, initially established by Chennault as a group of American pilots supporting China’s air force, eventually merged into the U.S. military, expanding its strategic presence in China with Chennault at the helm.