The Communist Party of China (CPC) loves the political ritualism in military parades. And messages were definitely not going to go amiss this week as the Party celebrated its 70th anniversary in power with its largest ever military cavalcade in Beijing.
“The Chinese people have stood up,” Mao Zedong proudly proclaimed on October 1, 1949 from Tiananmen Square when he declared a ‘New China’. Yet the military march that followed was trivial compared to what was on show on Tuesday. Apart from 2,344 of the Red Army’s warhorses, hardly any of the equipment on display in Mao’s parade was made in China. The airforce of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) consisted of just 17 warplanes, mostly seized from the defeated Kuomintang (KMT), which had fled to Taiwan. Few in number, the planes flew over Tiananmen twice to make the display more impressive – and they were fully armed in case KMT remnants staged a parade-crashing air strike from the northeast.
Fast forward seven decades and the current national (and CPC) leader Xi Jinping had mightier military hardware to showcase. All the same, he seemed keen to draw a direct line back to the Great Helmsman, dressing in a Mao-style suit. Another little detail intrigued observers too: Xi reviewed the troops from the customary Red Flag limo, with a senior PLA commander riding in an open-roof limo close behind. His vehicle carried a car plate with four digits: ‘2019’. Mysteriously – and for the first time – there was a third Red Flag following him. It was empty, but bore the licence plate: ‘1949’.
So who was supposed to be seated in the empty car? Media outlets asked the question, although none dared to offer a suggestion, except the People’s Daily.
“We want you to see that today is as prosperous as you once wished,” the Party mouthpiece explained on its website, without elaborating further on whether the empty car really had been reserved for the ghost of Mao (a little awkward, as the CPC denies the existence of supernatural beings).
What did Xi say in his keynote speech?
It was the sixth military parade staged in Xi’s presidency and the mood was typically celebratory. “No force can ever undermine China’s status, or stop the Chinese people and nation from marching forward,” he told jubilant crowds in Tiananmen Square, who were cheering and waving Chinese flags.
“This great event completely reversed China’s miserable fate born from poverty and weakness and being bullied and humiliated over more than 100 years since the advent of modern times,” Xi proclaimed, adding that the Chinese nation is embarked on the path of realising “national rejuvenation”.
Xi also played up the association with Mao’s regime. He visited Mao’s memorial in Tiananmen Square and bowed three times to Mao’s embalmed body the day before the parade – a gesture that was “a show of piety and respect deserved by one’s ancestors or the founder of a lineage inherited,” the China Daily explained.
Another world leader was ready to share the limelight, and you can probably guess who. “Congratulations to President Xi and the Chinese people on the 70th Anniversary of the People’s Republic of China!” Donald Trump tweeted on the day of the parade, moving on from a retweet the day before that had taken a rather different tone.
“After many years, the United States is finally waking up to Beijing’s plans and ambitions to pass us as the dominant economic & military superpower in the 21st Century. What’s happening now is that the US is finally responding (thank you President Trump). This is taking place in TRADE, it’s taking shape in Military Competition” was the message that Trump had retweeted, from Jonathan Ward, a China expert.
The congratulatory part of Trump’s tweet, Bloomberg noted, saw him diverge from senior Republicans, with Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell saying that the anniversary should serve more as a reminder of the “many millions of lives lost under Chinese Communist rule”.
Far from sending his best wishes McConnell added this thought: “Xi Jinping’s China looks disturbingly like a modern version of Maoist China.”
What has the CPC achieved over the past 70 years?
Here, the local media was on-message, trumpeting the economic miracle under the Party’s leadership. Xinhua news agency ran a series of reports on China’s achievements, detailing how since 1952 – when the first GDP data became available – to 2018 the Chinese economy had grown 453 times in US dollar terms. The country now contributed to 27.5% of world economic growth, Xinhua said, up 24.4 percentage points from 1978 when economic reforms were ushered in.
Statistics were very much the order of the day: another was that China made 928 million tonnes of steel in 2018, which delighted Xinhua as being 5,900 times the 1949 level and more than half of the world’s annual steel production today (in reality, it’s more steel than the Chinese can sell profitably, although that was overlooked…)
The China Daily looked for commentary from overseas. Nicholas Lardy from the Peterson Institute in the US told the newspaper: “There’s a great deal to celebrate, especially for the last 40 years. But I think there could be a lot more to come.” Meanwhile J Stapleton Roy, a former US ambassador to China, had words of praise too: “What’s the most important aspect and which impresses me most is the unbelievable rise in the standard of living of the Chinese people. Because in 1949, when the People’s Republic of China was established, while I was living in Nanjing, the people next door had so little food that the old people were not permitted to get out of bed, because they didn’t have enough to feed them. Now you don’t find that anywhere in China.”
International media outlets also recognised China’s economic achievements over the past 70 years. “When Chairman Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China seven decades ago, few could have entertained the possibility of the country looming large as one of the greatest economic success stories ever to be told, on track to eclipse the United States as the world’s biggest economy in a matter of decades,” Singapore’s Straits Times acknowledged in an editorial, adding that China was able to “free 800 million people trapped in poverty” and that life expectancies have climbed to 77 from 35.
What about the mistakes made over the years?
The People’s Daily came up with an innovative metaphor to field this trickier question.
“If we liken a country to a computer, then a Party is the operating system, and the OS that powers China is relatively stable and is constantly upgrading itself,” it said, seemingly glossing over some of the tragic mistakes of the CPC’s first 30 years in power merely as types of ‘debugging’ exercises.
It preferred to emphasise the superiority of the Chinese ‘operating system’: “US President Donald Trump’s failed infrastructure plan to upgrade the nation is one example of how difficult it can be to get everyone on the same page. The Western OS is unstable and prone to crashes, and it seems unable to adapt or upgrade in response to changes.”
The foreign media was less congratulatory on this score and keener to point out the human costs of some of the CPC’s costly policy errors. “The famine sparked by Mao’s Great Leap Forward took tens of millions of lives. Tens of millions more people were hounded in the Cultural Revolution,” the Guardian newspaper recalled. “Yet people were not lifted out of poverty [by the CPC]; they worked their way out.”
China’s opening up and reform period – beginning in 1979 – led to notable economic achievements, but these were largely thanks to the market-based policies that replaced Maoist dogma, other newspapers pointed out. The fear now is that Deng Xiaoping’s reformist mindset – which emphasised pragmatism and flexibility (one of his favourite maxims: ‘it doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice’) – is being eroded by the return to the more authoritarian reflexes of the Mao era.
“If China’s success has derived from flexibility, why is rigidity now setting in?” the Financial Times asked in another editorial.
Is the rise of China a threat to others?
The media in China has been talking up Xi’s Two Centenaries (i.e. two sets of 100-year goals). These aim to build “a moderately prosperous society in all respects by 2021” – the anniversary of the Party’s founding in Shanghai – and the emergence of “a modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious” by 2049 – exactly 100 years after Mao took power.
In Xi’s keynote speech ahead of the military parade, he also reiterated his latest diplomatic dictum that China’s foreign policy would foster “a community with a shared future for humanity”.
There was a lot more scepticism in the foreign press about China’s rising economic and military clout, and the impact that it will have on other nations. Almost universally international journalists focused their attention on the military hardware showcased at the parade and the message that it seemed to send out. The Economist magazine reported that a third of China’s intercontinental ballistic missiles were on display. The most closely watched was the DF-17, a wedge-shaped hypersonic glider that is difficult to intercept. The Washington Post – in an article headlined “China parades its latest missiles in challenge to US, others” – pointed out: “Military planners in Washington and elsewhere will be taking note of new missile technology displayed by China, particularly a hypersonic ballistic nuclear missile believed capable of breaching all existing anti-missile shields deployed by the US and its allies.”
An editorial in the Australian Financial Review took a similar line, under the headline “China promises peace as it rolls out the big guns” and the Japan Times also expressed concerns that the flaunting of the weaponry was further evidence that Xi has discarded another of Deng’s maxims of ‘hiding our strength and biding our time’ in foreign affairs.
However, a spokesman for the ministry of foreign affairs argued that Beijing cannot win when it comes to showcasing its latest armaments. The official noted that if China puts its weapons on display, it is accused of adopting an aggressive posture. But if it opts to keep them out of the public eye, it is charged with being secretive.
Anyway, it was wrong to see the military parade as a “muscle-flexing show”, the Global Times argued. Instead it was a sign of China’s commitment to peace and stability.
“The more military strength China has, the stronger the ability to maintain world peace,” the newspaper concluded.
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