China and the World, Talking Point

No rain on this parade

What message was Beijing sending with its military parade this week?

Parade w

A perfectly choreographed demonstration of power? The honour guard marches through Tiananmen Square

In the wake of the Second World War there was no shortage of victory parades. In 1945 General Montgomery and Marshal Zhukov took turns to inspect the Allied troops in Berlin. In January 1946 the Americans held their own triumphal procession in New York. And five months later there was another one in London, with most of Britain’s allies, including China’s Kuomintang government, marching proudly through the summer rain.

For the Western democracies the fad for military parades waned in the decades that followed. After all, as George Orwell wrote in England Your England, the goose-step was an affirmation of power that contained “the vision of a boot crashing down on a face”. Displays of this type were only possible in countries “where the common people dare not laugh at the army, ” the British novelist suggested.

But parades never went out of fashion in the Soviet Union, or in post-Soviet Russia: 150 of them have been staged in Red Square since Nazi Germany’s defeat.

Likewise China has regularly held military parades of its own, albeit with less frequency than the Russians. Since 1949 there have been just 15, with 11 of those held by Mao Zedong between 1949 and 1959. The tradition was then suspended until 1984 when it was resumed at the behest of Deng Xiaoping. In the wake of that event, however, military parades were turned into once-in-a-decade events, the prior two staged in 1999 and 2009 on the same day as China’s National Day celebrations.

Following this logic the next parade should have taken place on October 1, 2019 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the People’s Republic. But current Chinese President Xi Jinping broke with protocol this week to oversee a massive military parade to commemorate the end of the Second World War.

How much preparation went into the event?

Parades of this type always have a great deal of symbolic importance and they are often designed with international observers in mind. At Dwight Eisenhower’s presidential inauguration event in 1957 a clear message was sent to Washington’s Cold War foes, for instance, with the debut in the parade of the Snark intercontinental missile. Another iconic image from that day, mind you, was a stray dog strolling past the American president.

Similarly unscheduled appearances – canine or otherwise – were unimaginable in China this week, where every aspect of stage-management was in evidence. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA), for example, had even trained dozens of monkeys to dismantle bird nests in trees close to nearby airforce bases, fearing that the military flybys might otherwise be disrupted.

Also being cleared was the sky in general, in this case of the notorious smog that regularly chokes the Chinese capital. Average levels of PM2.5 (the most dangerous of the city’s sooty particles) hit a record low this month after the government ordered more than 12,000 plants to suspend operations. The controls seem to have been even more extensive than for the APEC summit last year (see WiC262). Little wonder that “parade blue” has become a popularly searched term on search engine Baidu.

The troops taking part in the parade, especially the marching columns, have undergone painstaking training for months. “How to quantify the honour guards’ training intensity? Each has to sweat a tonne of perspiration a year,” reported Jiemian, an internet newspaper.

A total of 51 servicewomen also formed part of the honour guard for the first time, with competition for places as intense as a national beauty contest. The female troops averaged 20 years in age and 1.78m in height, the Chinese press noted respectfully. One was a former model. And part of the group’s training regime involved gripping a chopstick in their mouths for 30 minutes a day (to practice a standard smile). “Many practiced too much and bit their sticks in two,” the China Daily reported approvingly.

Others questioned why the female formations were attracting so much attention. “We spend so much time and money in military affairs to protect our country, and you are talking only about our female soldiers,” one commentator complained in an opinion piece in the Beijing News. In fact, a more earnest tone was developing around this week’s event. To avoid suggestions of frivolity, propaganda officials barred television channels from broadcasting entertainment and drama shows for five days “to make way for content on the War against Japanese Aggression [i.e. WW2]”.

Who attended?

When Russia commemorated the 60th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany in 2005, Vladimir Putin was joined by more than 50 world leaders, including George W Bush and his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao.

This gathering of dignitaries was not to be repeated in Beijing this week, with Guancha, a portal for independent commentators, reporting that Xi Jinping’s invite to Western leaders had run into “some form of uncooperativeness” – akin to Putin’s experience during the Sochi Winter Olympics last year.

The Russian president – obviously – did turn up in Beijing, returning the favour for Xi’s attendance in Sochi and likewise his appearance at Russia’s WW2 victory parade earlier this year.

In fact Putin was one of 30 current or former heads of state attending the victory celebrations. Also making an appearance: United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

But the best “get” for the Chinese side, the Washington Post has suggested, was South Korean President Park Geun-hye, a key US military ally. South Korea has made diplomacy with China a higher priority in recent years (see WiC245), and like China shares an antipathy toward Japan. (The official name for the parade was the ‘Commemoration of the 70th Anniversary of Victory of Chinese People’s Resistance Against Japanese Aggression and World Anti-Fascist War’. Try saying that after a couple of beers.)

None of the senior Western politicians or heads of state joined China’s leaders in the best seats above Tiananmen Square. “We have invited leaders of relevant countries,” Zhang Ming, vice foreign affairs minister, told a press conference last month when asked why more foreign dignitaries were not joining the party. “It is their own decision. For us, we respect and welcome all guests.”

Other attendees who came willingly included Sudanese president Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who has been accused by the International Criminal Court of involvement in violence in Darfur that has resulted in 400,000 deaths.

Because Beijing isn’t a signatory to the treaty that authorises ICC arrest warrants, China is one of the very few countries that Bashir can actually visit. Asked this week whether an invitation to a man accused of war crimes was appropriate when similar atrocities took place during the conflict with the Japanese, the foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told the journalist that was “over-thinking” things, reports Reuters.

Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo was one of those who declined to turn up, despite being sent an invitation. No doubt it wouldn’t have been the most comfortable day out, although the Chinese authorities denied a specifically anti-Japanese ethos. “We have stressed several times that the celebrations are not targeting specific countries, not Japan, nor the Japanese people. It has no direct link to current Sino-Japanese relations,” said Zhang, the vice foreign minister.

But the China Daily may not have got the memo. It was furious that the invitation was declined, noting angrily that “Abe shows he has no desire to mend fences”, and even Xi Jinping himself struggled to stick to the script this week, describing the Japanese invaders as “fiendish” at a medal ceremony for veterans and their descendants.

And the weapons on display?

One of the reasons that the annual parade ceased in 1959 was that China was developing its first atomic bomb and Mao was more interested in these secret programmes than public displays.

How times have changed. A much richer and far more powerful country is now keen to show off its military hardware again (both as a display of national strength and also as an advertisement for its arms industry). A total of 12,000 troops, 500 pieces of the latest land and naval equipment, and nearly 200 aircraft were on display. A very specific estimate by PLA Parade Joint Command stated that 84% of the weapons had “never been viewed by the public before”.

“That could imply that in just six years [compared with the last parade in 2009] more than 80% of the PLA’s most advanced weapons have been swapped for new gear. It is terrifying. Just imagine the amount of money being spent for doing this,” a columnist in the Hong Kong Economic Journal suggested. But this investment was justified, Xinhua news agency thought, as it would showcase “the new development, achievement and image of the building of China’s armed forces”.

This temporary lifting of the curtain on China’s military capabilities, even for just a few hours, “will keep PLA watchers busy for weeks to come”, CNN later suggested.

The star of Thursday’s show was the Dongfeng 21 (DF-21D) missile. Like any intercontinental ballistic missile, it goes into orbit. But on re-entering the atmosphere it is capable of piloting nimbly towards moving targets. “Some analysts say such missiles threaten to consign aircraft carriers – which form the basis of current US naval strategy – to the dustbin, just as aircraft carriers themselves did to battleships with Japan’s 1941 attack on Pearl Harbour,” the Financial Times surmised.

(The range of military equipment was much discussed by Xinhua too. For example, it pointed out that 100% of the hardware on display was China-made, and a commentator on its online video feed tellingly described the nuclear missiles as “a shield of national dignity”.)

Xi’s message to the world?

Political analysts have sometimes classed the 1984 parade – which got the goose-steps going again after a 25-year hiatus – as one of Deng Xiaoping’s most powerful moments. Deng had reached 80 years of age. But national feeling was running high, as it was that same year that he had successfully negotiated an agreement with Margaret Thatcher to return Hong Kong to Chinese control, thus bringing a “shameful chapter” of history to a close.

“Inspecting the troops was effectively the inauguration of Deng… It also helped to boost national pride and nationalist rhetoric,” opined a columnist at, a new Hong Kong portal for independent commentators.

Was a similar formula at work this time? A show of might was clearly one intention of the army’s top brass, with a popular blogger for the People’s Daily commenting earlier in the year that the military wanted a display that would “make Japan tremble”.

But the People’s Daily had softened its tone this week, spinning a new line about the parade’s purpose. It said that the main intention was to showcase China’s resolve to protect world peace and the postwar global order.

Along similar lines Xi Jinping made the unexpected announcement on the day that China’s military personnel was to be reduced by 300,000 (the PLA currently numbers over 2.3 million men). Again, this may have been a nod to Deng Xiaoping’s playbook: less than a year after the 1984 parade he cut the number of military personnel by one million.

Other foreign commentators decoded a more hidden message in the parade’s scale and grandeur. “Another, little-remembered factor is also at play: China’s lingering resentment that its contributions to the Allies’ victory against Japan in World War Two were never fully recognised and have yet to translate into political capital in the region,” Rana Mitter, a professor at Oxford University, wrote in New York Times.

Some thought that Xi Jinping’s target audience was broader than Japan alone. “Even if Japan responds with a shrug [to Beijing’s military parade], it is likely that other Asian countries will still be spooked. Beijing’s real targets may in fact be Vietnam and the Philippines, which are in disputes with China over islands in the South China Sea, and Taiwan, which is slated to hold a presidential election in 2016,” Nikkei Asian Review commented.

Or was it designed more for local audiences?

Some analysts think that Xi’s real target market was the Chinese people.

“It seems to me that the whole thing is really for internal consumption… You are not doing this to impress the Pentagon,” Nick Bisley, the executive director of La Trobe Asia, told the Guardian.

In this interpretation Beijing was using a “Stalinist-style parade” to remind China’s 1.3 billion citizens how only the Communist Party could keep their country strong and safe.

“This is not a sophisticated cosmopolitan nationalism. This is an old-school tub-thumping view of national greatness and how you express that,” Bisley said.

Another widely discussed issue was the timing of the parade. Rather than being held in October 2019 as protocol would have suggested, Xi had shifted it to September 2015, much earlier in his tenure in office. Was this to show the Chinese public that he’d consolidated his power?

Of course, the timing of the parade also comes amid a slumping stock market and growing fears (locally and globally) about economic slowdown. In that sense, a show of confidence and vigour could not have been more opportune.

“The event allows Xi to push a much bolder nationalist agenda just as the Chinese public is beginning to question the Party’s main source of legitimacy: its ability to deliver economic growth,” the New York Times reckoned.

Until the first half of this year, Xi’s personal authority looked unquestionable – at least to external observers. His anti-graft campaign was going strong, putting him in a strong enough position to try Zhou Yongkang, a former Standing Committee member of the Politburo (see WiC286), as well as remove both of the vice-chairmen of the powerful Central Military Commission.

But the epic stock market tumble (plus the government’s clumsy responses, see WiC293) and then the deadly explosion in Tianjin last month have tarnished some of the government’s reputation for competence.

“It makes me really uncomfortable watching the news recently,” renowned author Wang Shuo wrote in a widely circulated WeChat article. “On one hand we have the messily handled crisis management in Tianjin. On the other hand every minute detail for the military parade is being taken care of… This is the best reflection of an authoritarian system.”

Sensing potential criticism, the state media has been rebuffing those who question the cost of a jamboree of this sort, especially in light of Xi’s austerity drive. “This will be money well spent… The government won’t cut its spending on alleviating poverty because of this parade,” the People’s Daily assured.

Nonetheless, beneath the perfect blue skies, there was to be no raining on Xi’s parade – in figurative or literal terms. Even the stock market didn’t upset things: a national public holiday meant it was closed. And the day before the parade, efforts were made to ensure that share prices didn’t generate panicky headlines. While Chinese stocks traded down substantially for much of Wednesday morning, a sudden surge of afternoon buying – most likely from state-directed funds – meant that Shanghai’s A-share index moved briefly back into positive territory, before ending the day down an undramatic 0.2%.

Of course, when the markets reopen on Monday, it could be a different story. Unlike this week’s celebrations on the streets of Beijing, they have a tendency to be a lot more difficult to choreograph…

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