'Marching toward a united, peaceful world' - What Does China's Parade Mean?

Anonymous, Beijing

While in Europe, the migrant crisis may have obscured coverage of wider world affairs, in China there has only been one event this week. For weeks, factories, traffic and even barbecues have been restricted to improve the weather in preparation for a grand parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the victory over Japan in the Second World War. A three-day public holiday has been declared and “frivolous” television such as reality TV and comedy removed from the airwaves to make way for extensive broadcasting of war propaganda-dramas and documentaries. Wider Beijing this morning was near-deserted, with the streets empty and many businesses closed as seemingly everyone watched. However, despite the nation-wide public attention on the anniversary, the parade itself was completely closed off to the public, with even people living on the streets used being told to close their windows and watch it on television. Clearly, no effort was spared to ensure that everything went perfectly (despite a mysterious interruption in the live broadcast).

While it might seem at first glance, with the open cars of veterans in their nineties leading the parade, that World War II is no longer relevant, this parade was about the China of today. Gleaming military hardware, over 80% of which displayed in public for the first time, such as state-of-the-art truck-mounted missiles and drones, was followed by row on row of immaculate soldiers goose-stepping in the 30º heat. Seemingly chosen for their matching heights, the appearance of the soldiers was mirrored by their generals, who reportedly lost an average of 5kg in preparation for the parade. Above them, several extravagant flight shows took place, including giant Chinese flags hanging from helicopters (civil aviation was banned in advance and monkeys trained to clear the area of the nests of any birds that might interfere).

President Xi Jinping, appealing to old-school Communist Party sentiment with his austere Zhongshan suit and references to “Mao Zedong Thought”, addressed both “comrades and friends” in his address, during which he described China’s military as a force for peace, announcing some personnel cuts. All the while, the state cameras pointedly panned around such foreign leaders as Vladimir Putin; this is the first time such guests have attended a public military rally in China, and seems to be part of an effort to portray the country not only as a world power, but as part of a powerful network of allies, as shown by the inclusion of regiments from countries that also fought the Axis Powers, ranging from Serbia to Laos and the Pacific Islands. China has courted controversy with its choice of guests, hosting both South Korean President Park Geun-hye and a top aide to Kim Jong-un, as well as Ban Ki-moon, whose presence was strongly protested by Japan.

Japan’s agitation at Secretary-General Ban’s apparent legitimisation of the parade is not without reason. China is playing into a wider strain of anti-Japanese sentiment, and using twentieth century grievances with their neighbour to justify what could be described as encroachment into the surrounding area. However, for President Xi, the focus of the parade is still firmly on China - and on him, emphasising his role as commander of the armed forces as he scooted around Tiananmen Square in a motorcade hailing various regiments with an expression of vague boredom. While China has been increasingly assertive in recent years, this parade is a new level of public militarism, and keeps public interest in the army over such recent problems as the Tianjin disaster and ongoing market instability. It appears that whatever is going on behind the scenes in Beijing, the new public face of China is unapologetically nationalistic and militaristic - and armed to back up its pretensions to world power.