Marching China

By Andrej Mrevlje |

I presume that most of Yonder’s readers did not watch the military parade in Beijing last Thursday. But with 12,000 soldiers marching and 500 tanks with missiles rolling down Beijing’s main avenue, while 200 airplanes dimmed the skies of the Chinese capital, you must have at least caught a glimpse of this spectacle paraded in every media outlet. It was like something from the golden age of advertising: Chinese military parade in every home!

Obviously, China wanted to demonstrate its military might. Chinese took a lesson from Hollywood, using all available film shooting techniques to underline their power: closeups of the tanks’ barrels pointing the sky, panning shots of millimetrically aligned bodies wearing uniforms and expressionless faces, zoom-ins to the split-second synchronized tapping of the boots – all in front of the gate of the former imperial palace, where on the rostrum the entire Chinese leadership was shown through long tracking shots. In short, the spectacle or better, the “show-off”  was of such a quality that it was difficult not to notice it.

While the message was clear, it is more difficult to decode to whom it was addressed. The multi-layered narration was built in such a way that there was a bit of something for everyone. The theme of the parade was the celebration of the Allied victory in World War II. While the West celebrates the same event in May, the Chinese now have their own celebration, which coincides with the capitulation of Japan on Sept. 2, 1945. This way, China can celebrates its first day of freedom on the day that Japan evaporated as a military power. But there is a little problem with this, as demonstrated by an anecdote from an article published in the China Story, a publication run by the Australian Centre on China in the World (CIW):

Teacher [in a Chinese class]: Construct a sentence using the expression ‘surprisingly’.

Student: a nation founded in 1949 surprisingly was a victor nation in 1945. Just as surprising is the fact that the same country is celebrating the seventieth anniversary of the victory in the sixty-sixth year of its founding!

Teacher: Get out!

The piece, “Parading the People’s Republic, contains a well-documented history of all military parades in China after 1949 except the last one. So, if the purpose of Thursday’s parade was to assert that Beijing and no longer Tokyo is the regional power, then all of the previous parades, as Geremie Barme and Sang Ye demonstrated in aforementioned piece, have been staged with different political messages all for the domestic population. In fact, since the establishment of People’s Republic, Tiananmen has always been the altar of power, and the military’s oracle for passing the messages to the people. It’s a ritual that hasn’t changed its liturgy since 1949.

“It is for this reason, and in contrast to the dizzying economic progress and technological development of urban space, that Tiananmen Square retained the image as the icon of eternal constancy, a symbol of power and the altar on which the Communist Party renews its heavenly mandate,” I wrote (in Slovenian) in an opinion piece on the parade in 2009.  

It’s my conviction that even the “70th Anniversary Parade” has been charged with patriotic messages for its domestic audience. Geopolitically speaking, there was no need to stage a costly spectacle to send a message to the world. The Chinese operations in the South China Sea offer a perfect and clear-cut reading to help understand China’s ambitions and its relationship with Japan. The march in Beijing, as threatening as it looked, was not a declaration of war. China is not ready for war.

Instead, as Chris Buckley reminds us in his piece for the New York Times, it is essentially to remember the role of Xi Jinping as the supreme commander of the Chinese military. For a relatively fresh-faced leader, Xi Jinping has accumulated his power very rapidly. Three years ago, when he took over the party, state and military, he started to test the real capacity of the quickly developing Chinese army. It seems like Xi is now in a position to make some drastic changes, which will make the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) more professional and efficient. Buckley’s piece explains this problem very clearly. In the past, the PLA was not only the people’s army, but also a constant employer for youths in the impoverished nation. Then, during Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, the PLA essentially received permission to get rich. For 20 years, generals and other officers ran a parallel economy. When Xi Jinping came into power, he knew that it would be either him or the army. The announcement that the army would reduce its ranks by 300,000 soldiers, tells me that he is very much in control. And while the army had a chance to show off their new toys during the parade, Xi has pressed the commanders to learn how to use them.

China has a complicated system: on one hand, Xi is wrangling with the corrupt PLA. But on the other hand, the PLA represents the country’s unity. Chinese surveillance forces, which are on the sidelines of this game, have used and abused the situation to exercise and vent their own paranoia, as you can read in a second piece from the China Story and in a short but excellent note from Buckley.

And why should we take note? In a few days, Xi Jinping, who is no less enigmatic than Kim Jong Un, is coming to the U.S. for strategic talks with president Obama. There is no way to know what will come out of these talks. So in order to laugh a bit (something Xi never does), treat yourself to some jokes about China’s president, collected by BBC from Chinese social media. Smile, if you can.  

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