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What Is China’s Big Parade All About?

A ChinaFile Conversation

On September 3, China will mark the 70th anniversary of its World War II victory over Japan with a massive parade involving thousands of Chinese troops and an arsenal of tanks, planes, and missiles in a tightly choreographed march across Tiananmen Square. China’s leaders call this display of power “The Commemoration of the 70th Anniversary of Victory of the Chinese People’s Resistance Against Japanese Aggression and World Anti-Fascist War.” What is the meaning of this event and why have China’s leaders invested so much in executing it? —The Editors

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China is a bit behind in its efforts to make the Second World War a grand myth for orienting values and legitimacy in the present. Americans have been so successful for so long at commemorating their role in World War II via stage, screen, parade, monument, and sound-bite that most Americans are surprised to learn that in the league table of national losses in the war, the U.S.A. ranks low, likely between Hungary and Korea. The U.K. not too many weeks ago performed its annual somber celebrations of the Battle of Britain and V.E. Day, and most Britons would bristle at any conclusion by modern historians that in resisting German attacks Britain actually had the advantage, and did not win in the face of daunting odds. In Russia, the only country to suffer deaths in the war that in numbers compare to China’s and in proportion of population far surpass China’s, the Victory Day commemorations may have flagged a bit during the dreary years of the 1990s, but Vladimir Putin has moved briskly to bulk it up, appropriating the glory of his ancestors’ dogged victory over Germany—and alienating E.U. leaders who mistakenly believe that World War II is 70 years in the past. That Xi Jinping can see what Putin can see is not too surprising. It is a pleasant day out to dress up like the dead and congratulate yourself on their triumphs while rumbling out the heavy machinery and making a lot of noise. Maximum mass precision and minimal individualist brooding. We all like it.

The scale of the C.C.P. celebration invites ridicule, but excess in the pursuit of purloined glory is no vice. It would be easy to linger on the petty, spiteful aspects of the current pageant—that it is an endlessly repeating celebration of Japan’s defeat; a chance to animate a C.C.P. version of the war that will diminish the roles of Chiang Kaishek, the Nationalists, and the Americans; an opportunity to gin up a minatory display of martial prowess for the benefit of the U.S.A., the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Taiwan. I’m sure those effects are all intended. But in China as elsewhere across the world, those who actually lived through World War II are disappearing fast. The living now get to publicly act out any story they want about the lonely, heroic struggles of their own nation against the unmitigated evil and insuperable powers of their neighborhood Axis foe. They get to tell a story of civilizations and values that culminates with them. They get to not merely remember, but be, the heroes of what Americans call the “last good war,” fought by the “greatest generation.” It is a global axial moment, and the C.C.P. understandably does not want to fall behind in the ability of the Allied successor states to place themselves squarely in the line of heroic succession. For Putin and Xi Jinping in particular, winning World War II is paying more dividends all the time.

When, on October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong announced the formation of the People’s Republic of China, his most memorable sentence was “China has stood up.” His meaning was obvious; After one hundred years of humiliation at the hands of western and Japanese imperialism, China has regained its national dignity. It can no longer be pushed around as it has been since the Opium War more than a century earlier. The giant military showcase in Beijing on Thursday has to be seen in that context. It’s a theatrical reminder, with tanks, missiles, helicopters, and fighter planes, that the century of humiliation is behind it.

The parade in this sense is also a reminder of the key element of the government and Party’s claim on legitimacy. The conventional wisdom for years has been that in the post-Mao era the Party can retain public compliance to its monopoly on power as long as it continues to foster economic growth. This is true. And yet, as the publicity around the 70th anniversary has made clear, ultimately the Party’s legitimacy comes from its claim to have guided China’s rise to great power status. Ultimately that’s where the Party’s authority to rule comes from, and it trumps all the considerable problems—corruption, environmental degradation, local misrule, chemical explosions, stock market collapses, etc.—that have led western commentators to wonder if the leadership will collapse.

The image that has come across in the steady stream of commentaries leading up to the parade is of a China whose rise is taking place in a hostile world. There has, in the common view in China, been a resurgence of Japanese militarism. The United States wants to “contain” China, to prevent its rise, to keep it weak, just as the colonial powers of the past did. There are frequent reminders in the press and on television of the hundred years of humiliation and, of course, of wartime Japanese atrocities.

And so, to much of the rest of the world, the parade is worrisome, because it comes at a time of aggressive Chinese behavior both at home and abroad, in such things as island building in the South China Sea and a wave of new human rights abuses. China is widely, and correctly, seen not just as a rising power but as an opaque, authoritarian one that is less and less inclined to tolerate opposition, foreign and domestic, to its goals. But in China itself, the military parade on September 3, with its 12,000 smartly turned out soldiers goose-stepping across Tiananmen Square, is aimed at instilling a sense of national pride and defiance, and to polish the image of an un-elected leadership whose chief promise to its people is that China won’t be pushed around.

To celebrate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, I am reading Ian Buruma’s splendid, unsettling book Year Zero: A History of 1945. Buruma explores all the sordid messiness of that year of surrender, from Germany’s in May to Japan’s in August. He is unsparing in the details of how, after a brief ecstasy, brutality and destructiveness seeped into the immediate post-war months of what is erroneously called “peacetime.” He also shows how callous were the forces that took it as their mission to re-order the world: unleashing a rump spasm of violence to cower populations into submission, sweeping justice under the carpet of “national reconstruction,” manipulating a sense of victimhood for self-serving ends. Buruma does manage to find fleeting scenes of nobility amidst the chaos of the war’s end, typically the acts of lone individuals who miraculously kept their moral compass intact. Although there are only a few places where he goes in-depth about China, Buruma knows Japan well and writes vividly about the evaporation of its brutal Asian empire.

Reading Buruma’s historical meditation on the reality of 1945 highlights the ahistorical absurdity of the military pageantry in Tiananmen Square intended to commemorate it. A military parade is a display not only of state power, but also of social order. Indeed, it is an apotheosis (or dystopia) of social order, reducing a dynamic, diverse citizenry into columns of soldiers, marching in unison, dressed in matching fatigues, saluting their commander, embodying the monolithic nation. A military parade is a fantasy fit for kings—a live performance of what James Scott calls “seeing like a state.” If only citizens marched and saluted like soldiers, thinks the king to himself. If only society could be arrayed in perfect rows and matching colors. If only the stock market would rise steadily like a flock of a thousand pigeons. If only history of and since 1945 were the story of how fascism was defeated and world peace was protected.

But real history is the antithesis of a military parade, as is real governance. What Scott calls “seeing like a state” is in fact a form of blindness; just as the Commemoration Parade is a ritual of forgetting. Tiananmen Square has seen quite a bit of real history come and go. This Victory Day parade will pass, but the Square and its possibilities will remain.

As this thoughtful discussion notes, the upcoming military review is designed to serve several different purposes. The actual military purpose of the parade, however, should not be overlooked.

Put simply, military reviews are one way in which China engages in what authoritative PLA sources describe as “strategic deterrence.” The concept of strategic deterrence does not refer narrowly only to nuclear deterrence, though that is important. Rather, it describes more broadly all the ways that displays of military capabilities can be used to show strength and deter others from challenging China’s interests. In the 1984 parade, for example, the Dongfeng-5 intercontinental ballistic missile was displayed for the first time to show the world that China possessed a nuclear retaliatory capability.

Military reviews are usually held on China’s national day to commemorate the founding of the People’s Republic. This week’s military review is the first in several decades to be held “off cycle,” only six years since the last one in 2009. Nevertheless, although intended to remember the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, the deterrent purpose extends far beyond Japan. From Beijing’s perspective, its regional security environment has deteriorated in the past few years. Territorial and maritime boundary disputes with many neighbors have intensified. Under the “rebalance” to Asia, the United States has increased its military assets forward-deployed in the region and improved its security ties with many states, especially those in active disputes with China.

These changes in China’s security environment may help to explain why Xi Jinping did not want to wait until 2019 to hold a military review. Amid a worsening security environment, Beijing may feel that it needs to show strength and resolve. As Chinese media sources have noted, the majority of the equipment in the parade will be on public display for the first time—clearly an effort to show strength. For example, several new missile systems may be appear, including the Dongfeng-16, a short-range conventional ballistic missile, and the Dongfeng-21D, a medium-range conventional ballistic missile designed to strike surface ships such as aircraft carriers, among others.

Yet if the military purpose of the parade is to enhance China’s strategic deterrence, displays of strength may easily backfire—especially because of existing tensions. Rather than deter others from challenging China, the parade is more likely to underscore the military threat that China poses and affirm increasingly negative perceptions of Beijing’s intentions.

It was only last year that China’s National People’s Congress ruled that three national days of commemoration should be observed. They were September 3, for China’s victory over Japan; December 13, for the Nanjing Massacre; and September 30, the day China is to honor its National Heroes. Only the last one recalls the Chinese Communist revolution, and even then prefers to refer to national rather than revolutionary heroes. The inclusivity of the new narrative stands in stark contrast with the past, when the only game in town was the story of China’s Communist revolution, with its class warfare and paranoid persecution of internal enemies. China now is using WWII to locate the origins of New China in the joint resistance, in utterly gruesome conditions, against the depredations of a barbaric invader. Any historian worth his salt can prick holes in this narrative—China was as much at war with itself as with the Japanese—but one of the benefits is that the new version of the past provides an honorable and dignified place in China’s history for all those who suffered so much during WWII, something for which those still alive will be grateful, and for which their families, many of whom will still live with complex and traumatic memories, will also be thankful. And if there was place for only a very few foreigners in the revolutionary version of China’s modern history, the new one stresses China’s membership of an international alliance. These are all genuine advances.

The enormous lengths to which China’s leadership is going this year to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII also is an expression of pride in all that China has achieved over the last three decades. The ostentatious display of military hardware will seem inappropriate, even distasteful, to most Westerners, but probably is meant to illustrate that China now has the military wherewithal to keep its people safe, unlike during the last two centuries, when it suffered one defeat after another. As others have flagged up, there is no doubt, too, that the PRC’s leaders are using the occasion to signal geo-strategic intentions in East Asia, and more broadly.

If the legacies of hate that WWII left in its wake have by and large dissipated in Europe, almost the opposite seems the case in East Asia. In 1972, when Prime Minister Tanaka visited China and apologized for Japan’s atrocities in China, Mao Zedong urged him to stop, remarking, in his usual cynical and supercilious way, that were it not for Japanese invasion, the Communists would still be in the hills. Hatreds of Japan are now being actively flamed. In that context, it is worth remembering that in 1945, China’s then leadership, that of Chiang Kaishek’s Nationalists, arranged for Japan’s surrender in China to take place at 9 am on 9 September: the ninth hour of the ninth day of the ninth month, an obvious echo of 11 am on the 11th day of the 11 month, when the armistice that ended WWI began. 9-9-9 was a doubly apt choice given that the Chinese words for ‘nine’ and ‘forever’ sound the same. The choice expressed the hope that peace would now indeed last forever. It has done so for seventy years, which isn’t a bad record, and that does deserve a bash.

One common warning to would-be China-watchers is that it’s not all about Beijing. And that’s certainly the case with the just-passed military parade. The hardware display and hardline rhetoric in the capital shouldn’t distract us from a less evident, but real change in the Chinese narrative: the widening of the story of the war to allow in not just the story of the Nationalist (Kuomintang) who ruled China during the conflict, and also the human stories of those who had little connection with politics yet suffered greatly—refugees, children, starving peasants, and victims of bacteriological warfare among them.

The veterans present, aged between 90 and 102, were the most moving element of the ceremony (as well as the only part that really connected to the story of the war). Both Nationalist and Communist veterans were invited. It’s worth reflecting how unlikely this would have been just a decade ago—and even less likely in the era of Mao. There are other signs of the wind changing. On CCTV this past Sunday morning, Luo Yuan, a rear admiral in the PLA Academy of Military Science, talked about the need to get beyond giving more credit for winning the war either to the Communists or the Nationalists and instead speak of a national victory (you can see this via the CCTV-News website on the latest edition of the show Closer To China).

To be sure, there is still plenty of rhetoric about the leading role of the Communist Party in winning the war. It was most graphically evident in an all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza at the Great Hall of the People on the night before the parade itself (scenes included a choreographed detachment of the United Anti-Japanese Front in Manchuria in 1931). But away from the top-down history still promoted by Beijing, you can see plenty of examples around China of a new, broader approach to war history. Those who have not yet done so should make time to visit Huangshan, Chiang Kai-shek’s villa outside the wartime capital of Chongqing, where you will be greeted by an actor playing the Generalissimo, pencil moustache and all. Permission for this is not remotely because of any desire for historical objectivity on the part of the CCP, of course. Rather, the party has recognized that it has to provide a means of bringing in painful and traumatic memories of the war, and of resistance to invasion, that are worthy of remembrance but have no real connection with the narrative of Communist rise. Places like Chongqing, whose wartime contribution was entirely tied to the Nationalist government (flawed, corrupt, and abusive as it was), are quietly but recognizably being given leeway to tell their stories too as part of a new national narrative. Fortunately, these stories often are less strident and more human than those that concentrate purely on the military.