China awes the world: Act Two

Expectations are high for next week’s National Day parade

China awes the world: Act Two

Girl power: female militia put their best leg forward

Rather than rest on its laurels after the spectacular display at last year’s Olympic opening ceremony, Beijing has called in director Zhang Yimou for a sequel.

At least that seems to be the impression of many in the Chinese press, which is confidently anticipating another barnstormer of a show at next week’s National Day parade.

To expect a genuine rerun would be a mistake. Sequels rarely turn about to be as good as the original and the Olympics were more of a one-off celebration, geared to showcasing China’s new confidence to the outside world.

The National Day festivities fit into a longer heritage of pomp and circumstance, dating back to the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. They are also designed far more with a domestic audience in mind, especially one for which a sixty year celebration holds deeper significance (it constitutes a jiazi, a unit of calculation in the lunar calendar that signifies the end of a period and the beginning of another cycle).

Another key difference to the Olympic celebrations will be the nature of the lead participants.

This time around the goose-steppers are regaining the limelight from the high jumpers, as the military takes centre stage (according to the China Daily, each soldier will make 128 goosesteps of exactly 0.75 metres each).

The holding of military reviews is far from an annual event. In the sixty years since 1949, there have been only thirteen formal march-pasts – one for each of the eleven years from 1949 to 1959, one in 1984 and another in 1999.

Back in 1949, the hardware on display was almost entirely that captured from its enemy – Chiang Kai-shek’s defeated Nationalist forces – reports Xinhua.

Next week, a new generation of Chinese weaponry will be on display, including five types of new weapon. Pride of place goes to the Dongfeng 41, a missile with a range of up to seven thousand five hundred miles (in case you’re wondering, that brings Washington DC into range – just).

The spotlight given to the nation’s military is a deliberate one, PLA Major General Luo Yuan, a former deputy director at the Beijing-based Academy of Military Sciences, told Hong Kong newspaper Ta Kung Pao. It will show taxpayers how their money is being spent, foster pride in China’s military might, and may even intimidate a few potentially hostile countries into the bargain.

Still, there is more to October 1 than military muscle. A supporting cast of two hundred thousand (much of which has been practicing for months) will join the proceedings. A civilian flotilla of vehicles showcasing six decades of China’s scientific, technological and economic achievements will also follow behind the tanks. Then in the evening there will be fireworks and a concert at Tiananmen, in the shadow of the 56 pillars (representing the nation’s ethnic groups) erected around the square.

It would all seem to add up to a pretty major extravaganza, even though the Global Times has been keen to make it clear that the expense will be handled in a “frugal and cost effective manner”. Bloomberg reckons it will cost at least $44 million.

Parades in the past have provided a glimpse of regime psychology. Western observers would pore over official reports to check the sequence in which leaders were named or photographed. Just as Kremlinologists would draw up the political pecking order from the line-up taking the salute in Red Square, so clues to the hierarchy in the Chinese Politburo would be sought in the seating arrangements on the podium at Tiananmen Gate.

Things are now a little less opaque. But there is still a clear sense of the political discipline expected at moments of such national symbolism.

Accordingly, this year’s programme has been designed with an eye to Hu Jintao’s “Five Goods” formula. So expect national unity, the vitality of the political system under the Communist Party, and the importance of opening and reform to all get a decent billing.

There is a further anomaly. Amid all the talk of the nation’s self-confident future, the day’s marching, banners and mass choreography seem to be coloured with an enduring flavour of the former Soviet Union.

China may well have aspirations for a brave, new world.

But in much of the way that it conducts its parades at least, it seems a little reluctant to leave an older world behind.

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