As fighter jets streaked through the skies of Beijing and tanks rolled through Tiananmen Square to commemorate the end of World War II, Chinese President Xi Jinping told the world that the nation was committed to peace and announced the biggest cuts to the army in almost two decades.
“Chinese love peace,” Xi said in a televised speech. “No matter how much stronger it may become, China will never seek hegemony or expansion. It will never inflict its past suffering on any other nation."
Xi said that army personnel would be reduced by 300,000, the largest reduction to the 2.3 million-strong military since 1997. The announcement foreshadows the most sweeping overhaul of the military in at least three decades, moving it closer to a U.S.-style joint command structure, people familiar with the matter said.
The parade offered Xi a global platform to present his vision of a “Chinese Dream” of national rejuvenation and military strength. Still, his message of peace may not resonate in the capitals of his neighbors. The country has been flexing its military muscle from the East China Sea, where it disputes territory with Japan, to the South China Sea, where its island-building has given impetus to military budget increases among Southeast Asian nations.
“The cuts announcement is to complement the show of force. It helps soften the perceived power display impact,” said Zhang Baohui, director of the Center for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. “The cuts won’t hurt the PLA fighting capabilities. It’s part of the reform package to streamline the PLA to make it more combat effective.”
The decision to hold a parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the “Victory of the Chinese People’s Resistance Against Japanese Aggression and the World Anti-Fascist War” was a sign of how Xi has become one of the country’s most powerful leaders since Mao Zedong. China traditionally puts on a military pageant every 10th anniversary of its founding in 1949. The war anniversary gave Xi the opportunity to have one four years early and less than three years into his term in office.
Photographer: Getty Images
“It reinforces Xi’s undisputed position as the paramount leader of the country,” said Oh Ei Sun, an analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “It represents the accumulation of everything he’s done over the past few years.”
The pageant featured 12,000 soldiers, almost 200 of China’s latest aircraft and mobile ballistic missile launchers capable of delivering nuclear warheads to the continental U.S. A squadron of helicopters in the formation of the number 70 flew over the square, and the parade was preceded by the firing of a line of artillery, one round for each year since the end of the conflict.
Xi began the day by greeting some of the foreign leaders and dignitaries that attended the event including Russian President Vladimir Putin and South Korean President Park Geun Hye. Putin, who hosted Xi at his own WWII victory parade in May, is the only state leader representing China’s wartime allies. U.S. President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande stayed home over concerns over the militarism on display and the potential for the event to stoke anti-Japanese sentiment. No Japanese official attended.
The event also displayed China’s penchant for reshaping history, portraying the Communist forces as victors over the Japanese Imperial Army. It was the Communists’ eventual civil war foe, the Nationalists led by the government of Chiang Kai Shek that did the bulk of the fighting and suffered the most casualties at the hands of the Japanese. About four years after the Japanese defeat, the Nationalists were forced to flee the mainland to Taiwan after losing a civil war to the Communists that left Mao Zedong in control of the country. Xi didn’t mention the role of the nationalists in his speech, though a handful of their fighters were among the veterans invited to attend the event.
Photographer: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images
For some outside of China, the images of tanks rolling through Tiananmen Square revived quarter-century old memories of PLA troops being used to crush pro-democracy demonstrators in an operation that may have killed hundreds. There was no mention of the suppression of the Tiananmen demonstrations, an event that doesn’t feature in Chinese history texts.
For Xi, the parade was also an opportunity to offer a distraction from a flood of bad news weighing on the Chinese public from a slowing economy to a stock-market rout that’s erased $5 trillion of value and the warehouse explosions in nearby Tianjin last month that killed at least 158.
Authorities left nothing to chance ahead of the parade, ordering cars off the road and halting factories to limit pollution, and even deploying monkeys, falcons and dogs to scare birds from the flight path of the planes that will fly over the capital. To make sure the message got across, the government curtailed TV programming that didn’t conform to theme of the parade or China’s victory in World War II. State media highlighted the event as a historic occasion.
Photographer: Fred Dufour/AFP via Getty Images
“The party has really got to justify its existence in a more complex society and it has to deliver not just economic growth,” said Nick Bisley, a professor of international relations at La Trobe University in Melbourne. “It has got to have people buy into the message and one of the crucial messages central to the party has been: We’re the only people keeping this show together.”