I Love a Parade

I’m actually ambivalent to parades in general, but I must admit to having a strange fascination with Chinese military parades. I’m not sure why, but perhaps it’s because they are multi-layered and there are interesting things going on at every level.

china military parade

On Thursday, September 3, China held it’s 14th grand military parade in Central Beijing. While past parades have been held to commemorate the founding of the People’s Republic or other Communist Party milestones, this one was designed to mark the end World War II; specifically the defeat of Japan. And just to be sure that everyone got that, it was given the somewhat clunky (at least in English) name: Commemoration of the The 70th Anniversary of the Victory of the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression and the World Anti-Fascist War.  

From a purely visual aspect, the production of the parade was stunning. Nobody can stage manage and produce images (still and moving) better than CCTV, the Chinese national broadcasting entity. They are true masters.

Watching a Chinese military parade is also somewhat jarring, culturally. Parades in the west tend to be laid-back (albeit well-organized), often winsome events. The goal is to have a good time. Not so with a military parade; goose-stepping soldiers, tanks, and nuclear missiles tend not to have that kind of effect on people.

And perhaps that’s just the point. The parade wasn’t about or for the enjoyment of the people; it was about communicating a message to the people: “We have risen; we are strong.” To many (perhaps most) people in China, this message (rightly) inspires pride; to many in the west, consternation.

In other words, mission accomplished.

If you missed it the first time around, you can watch the entire parade here.

It is a little over an hour. If you would prefer to watch the 1-minute version, you can do so here.

Jonah Kessler has produced an excellent short video about the parade titled Pomp and Power at China Military Parade.

If you are more inclined towards still photos of the parade, The Atlantic has collected some of the best.

The Economist highlights the specific message that China was sending to Japan:

The government described the display as an international celebration, befitting the 70th anniversary of an Allied victory. But an online article in the People’s Daily, the party’s mouthpiece, earlier this year made clear what this meant. The parade’s purpose, it said, was to “deter Japan” and “show off China’s military might”. This was promptly toned down to “conveying to the world that China is devoted to safeguarding international order after world war two, rather than challenging it”. China argues that the main threat to the international status quo is the desire of Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, to rewrite his country’s pacifist constitution. So the polite version is not, in fact, all that different from the blunt one.

It was also a more personal message from President Xii Jinping saying to the Party and the nation (and to potential rivals): “I am in charge now.” An article in The New York Times delves deeper into the meaning of the parade for Mr. Xi, and especially his use of the parade to announce troop reductions:

But the highly public manner of Mr. Xi’s announcement that 300,000 military personnel would be demobilized, China’s largest troop reduction in nearly two decades, carried another implicit message. He was demonstrating his grip on the military and on the party, amid economic squalls and a grinding anticorruption campaign that have left some wondering whether he and his agenda of change — including in the People’s Liberation Army — were faltering, several experts said.

“It’s Xi in command,” Andrew Scobell, a political scientist at the RAND Corporation who studies the Chinese military, and who was in Beijing during the parade, said of the announcement.

Writing at The New Yorker, Even Osnos notes that one of the issues underlying the parade was skeptism:

Seventy years after China emerged from the Second World War, the greatest threat facing the nation’s leadership is not imperialism but skepticism. Chinese Communist Party leaders built their legitimacy on economic performance, and now they must rebuild confidence that they are able to negotiate a more complicated financial and political moment.

The Wall Street Journal does an excellent job in presenting five takeaways from the parade.

Since this was the first parade to be held in the era of social media, there were numerous stories about how Chinese netizens were reacting online to the parade. The Wall Street Journal identified 5 memes, or topics of particular interest and comment on social media. They range from the red dress worn by President Xi’s wife to fans taking selfies with Chairman Mao’s grandson.

Finally, if you are interested in the history of Chinese military parades, I recommend the Parading The People’s Republic, posted at The China Story. It reminds us that these parades have a long and glorious history!

The 3 September 2015 Grand Military Parade is the fifteenth large-scale event of its kind in the history of the People’s Republic (not counting such confected crowd-sourced events as anti-US rallies, Mao’s eight reviews of amassed Red Guards in 1966 and celebrations following the coup d’état against the ‘Gang of Four’ in October 1976). It is an out-of-sequence triumph, heavily freighted with Xi-era self-congratulation.

Congratulations, China, on a parade well-marched!

Image credit: The Atlantic

This is a slightly edited version of a post that was first published at ChinaSource on September 7, 2015.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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