BEIJING — Xi Jinping starred in a spectacular military parade in the Chinese capital Thursday, revealing more about his vision for the country and making an announcement designed to show, yet again, that he is a man in control.
Billed as a commemoration of China’s role in World War II, Thursday’s tightly choreographed event moved between growling militarism and solemn calls for peace, between the glorification of the past and the evocation of a brighter future — under the leadership of the Communist Party and President Xi, of course.
In a surprise move, Xi announced that China will cut 300,000 soldiers from its more than 2-million-strong armed forces, part of an ongoing effort to modernize the military, by, for instance, moving resources from ground to air forces.
Xi pitched the plan, and the entire event, as a peace offering — a tough sell given that he was surrounded by weapons, the country’s military spending is rising, the slimming of the army is intended to make it more effective, and there are global concerns about China’s maritime claims.
Domestically, the message was that amid an anti-corruption crackdown that has roiled the highest levels of the party and the People’s Liberation Army, Xi is very much in charge, an heir to Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.
The event opened with Xi, the general secretary of the Communist Party of China, chairman of the Central Military Commission and president of the People’s Republic of China, in a car driving east on Chang’an Avenue.
He wore a Mao suit and stood in the sunroof of a Chinese-made Red Flag limousine, his arms stiffly at his side, his gaze on the 12,000 troops waiting for inspection as part of a military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of “victory in the Chinese People’s War Against Japanese Aggression,” also known as the end of World War II.
“Greetings, comrades!” he shouted.
“Greetings, chief!” they replied.
“Comrades, you’ve worked hard!” he said.
“Serve the people,” they shouted back.
Moments later, with Xi back at Tiananmen Square, the parade began: goose-stepping soldiers from across China and a handful of other nations, four columns of tanks spewing black smoke, then missiles — many missiles, both “nuclear and conventional.”
Then came the planes: They flew low over the heart of the old city, rattling buildings along the wide, empty boulevard, leaving candy-colored smoke trails over the Forbidden City and the shuttered alleyways beyond.
And finally: doves. Seventy thousand doves were set free against an azure sky — all watched by a small group of dignitaries and carefully chosen spectators, with images beamed across the nation and around the world.
The parade played differently at home and abroad.
From the set to the ritualistic staging, the event was designed, first and foremost, to inspire pride among ordinary Chinese, who are familiar with the history and traditions of the Communist Party: the call-and-response inspections, the goose-stepping and the marching in Tiananmen Square.
Through months of buildup in the state-controlled media — “entertainment” programming made way for war movies during the holiday — the government has marshaled memories of wartime suffering to deliver a potent, patriotic pitch about overcoming national humiliation and rising again despite the odds.
“In defiance of aggression, the unyielding Chinese people fought gallantly and finally won total victory against the Japanese militarist aggressors, thus preserving China’s 5,000-year-old civilization and upholding the cause of peace of mankind,” Xi said in his opening remarks.
The message forms the core of Xi’s signature vision for national rejuvenation, and the modernization of the armed forces would very much be a part of that. His message seemed to resonate with many Chinese, who, barred from getting near the parade because of a lockdown-level of security, posted Chinese flags and supportive comments on social media.
“I couldn’t hold back tears when I saw the veterans on television,” said a young woman in Beijing’s Panjiayuan District who gave only her surname, Wang. “We really owe our life now to them.”
China had hoped that top leaders from the Western Allied powers would attend the event, but they did not. Instead, former leaders and diplomats, among them former British prime minister Tony Blair and Max Baucus, the current U.S. ambassador to China, were there. In the grandstands with Communist Party elders: President Vladimir Putin of Russia, South Korean President Park Geun-hye and officials from some 30 countries, including Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague on charges including genocide and crimes against humanity.
Leaked censorship directives published by China Digital Times revealed the state’s displeasure: “Do not hype or comment on those high leaders of major Western countries that did not attend the September 3 military parade commemorating the 70th anniversary of the victory in the war against Japan.”
Although China often asks Japan to take a “correct” view of history, many historians say the Chinese Communist Party itself takes liberties with history — playing down or ignoring the fact that it was Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces, not Mao’s guerrillas, that took the fight to the Japanese.
Xi’s comments made no mention of this fact. “Questionable,” said Qiao Mu, a professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University. “But history is written by the winner.”
The version of history being crafted by Xi and his peers is of a country that triumphed under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and is being led forward by the party — ever stronger and more forceful, but still, as Xi stressed several times, committed to peace.
“The experience of war makes people value peace even more,” Xi said. “Regardless of the progress of events, China will never seek hegemony. China will never seek to expand and will never inflict the tragedies it suffered in the past upon others.”
The sentiment is unlikely to calm nerves outside the country.
Xi will visit Washington this month at a time when ties are stressed by accusations of cyberwarfare, and concerns over territorial disputes and China’s ability to manage its economy.
“Showing off their military capabilities in this way, just before you come to the U.S., is negative from the public opinion standpoint,” said Susan Shirk, chair of the 21st Century China Program at the University of California at San Diego. “It will be a point for the presidential candidates to say something about, and it will heighten the perception of China as a military rival, if not a military threat.”
In a note to clients issued Thursday, Tom Miller of Gavekal Dragonomics, a research firm, said that a military parade intended to make China look strong actually made it look weak, at least internationally.
“Far from winning new friends, today’s military chest-thumping is only likely to scare China’s neighbors into the arms of the U.S.,” he wrote.
The title of Miller’s client advisory: “Goose Stepping into Isolation.”
Gu Jinglu, Xu Yangjingjing and Liu Liu contributed to this report.