China staged a military parade today to commemorate Japan’s defeat in World War 2. Also, to show the world its cache of supersonic anti-ship missiles, fighter jets, and amphibious tanks in a spectacle that was as over-the-top as the ten-lane, Soviet-inspired throughway in Beijing that was built for occasions like this.
Beijing was essentially shutdown for 24 hours. Restaurants and shops in the city center shuttered yesterday and Thursday, the airport was closed for 3 hours today, and residents all along the main avenue bisecting Beijing’s north and south sides were told to stay indoors. The stock markets in Shanghai and Shenzhen also took off Thursday and Friday, to the relief of pretty much everyone from Wall Street to Johannesburg.
It usually feels pretty good to be an American when World War 2 anniversaries roll around. There were the defeats of Nazi Germany and then Japan, which set up a new world order for the past six decades. Now China wants to at least join the U.S. on top of that order, if not replace it over the next century, and Beijing isn’t above trying to start with the re-casting of WW2. It’s hard to deny that the Chinese perspective has some justice: the patchwork of regional conflicts that made up WW2 started not with the German invasion of Poland, but rather with Japan’s encroachments into China in 1931, a full 10 years before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Foreign journalists tweeted comments made on the state-run broadcast that pushed the historical boundaries. On CCTV: China “disrupted the grand plan of militaristic Japan to dominate the world.” “CCTV says China tied up 90% of Japanese armed forces, inflicted 1.4 million casualties on the enemy. Saved Europe, the USSR, Asia.” Another commenter: “Look at this missile, it can hit Hawaii.”
China’s propaganda machine was dialed up for the occasion. All television channels were required to broadcast content Thursday related to the parade or the history of China’s sworn enemy’s—Japan—defeat; Hunan TV, which normally broadcasts shows for millennial and singing contests, was stuck showing war history.
The whole thing being staged in Beijing, a normally polluted, trafficked, and (to me) charmingly crowded mega-city of 22 million that transformed into blue-skies after factories surrounding the city were shut down for a week and cars kept off the roads, felt artificial. And so does the conceit.
Didn’t the U.S. end World War II with atomic weapons in Japan? Wasn’t it the USSR that ultimately drove the Japanese out of China’s Manchuria? Didn’t the Japan-China conflict end without any major battlefield victories for either Mao’s Communists or Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang forces? Do secure nations stage military parades? (The list of other countries that do hold military parades was floating around Chinese news sites: Russia, North Korea, India, and France.)
I didn’t want to get sucked into caring about the parade, but it was hard not to. The night before, all the restaurants along a main avenue in the northern part of the city were closed—the normally hectic streets crowded with honking mopeds and Audis was silent. I passed at least 75 public volunteers wearing light blue polo shirts and red armbands who sat at intervals in the streets observing darkness, looking bored.
When I returned home, my building’s security guard said he was excited. He was watching the parade on TV the next morning. (of course—onlookers weren’t allowed along the route.) Was it the show of advanced weapons? “Yes!”
A Chinese friend with liberal politics described to me why so many regular Chinese were excited about the parade. She said friends in the countryside wanted to come to Beijing just for the occasion—despite knowing they wouldn’t be welcomed along the route.
She said it boiled down to three reasons: One, the parade gave China ‘face,’ or national pride. Two, the Chinese will never forgive Japan for their WW2-occupation and this was a chance to get in another shot. Three, old people were excited to watch. Four, everyone was excited to see what new weapons China has because China doesn’t have public debates over military spending like we sometimes do in the U.S.
Some close China watchers have said the spectacle was less about making a statement to the world than President Xi Jinping making a statement to the military that he’s firmly in charge. “In Chinese political culture, the military parade is essential for any top leader to achieve status of unchallenged strongman,” Willy Lam, an expert on Chinese politics and adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, wrote in an email last week, noting that Xi is staging his earlier—he’s been in power less than three years—than previous leaders Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin or Hu Jintao. Others said the long-range missiles were picked to send a strong message “across the Taiwan Strait, the East China Sea, the South China Sea and the Pacific: China has arrived as a great military power, and its interests must be taken seriously,” wrote Andrew Erickson, professor at the U.S. Naval War College.
Whatever the reason, there were plenty of reasons to gripe about Beijing’s show of force—especially for Americans witnessing a thorough re-casting of history.