The parade’s timing may prove to be a fortuitous opportunity for Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang to appear strong, in control and powerful in the eyes of the Chinese public.
Chinese President Xi Jinping needed a parade, and he made the most of it.
A summer of tragic accidents and terrible economic news had started to raise questions about the competence and integrity of Communist Party officials, from low-level administrators up to Xi himself. Thursday’s massive military parade provided the perfect opportunity for him to create “good news” to counter the drumbeat of negativity.
Xi kicked off the parade by saying he would reduce the country’s military personnel by 300,000.
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The Chinese military has more than 2 million members, and Xi has embarked on an accelerated modernization of the armed forces, which would shift spending from the traditional land forces to more advanced sea and air forces, which require fewer but better trained personnel.
Speaking on a platform overlooking Tiananmen Square, he described the cut as a gesture of peace at a time China’s neighbors have grown increasingly worried about its territorial claims and military strength.
“I announce that China will reduce military personnel numbers by 300,000,” he said, after saying the military was “loyally committed to its sacred duty of defending the security of the motherland and the peaceful life of the people, and loyally committed to the sacred duty of safeguarding world peace.”
The parade, which began immediately after Xi spoke, was an attempt by the Communist Party to showcase the nation’s rising military might to a global audience.
The parade wasn’t planned in response to the string of recent bad news. It had been in the works since the start of the year.
But the timing may prove to be a fortuitous opportunity for Xi and Premier Li Keqiang to appear strong, in control and powerful in the eyes of the Chinese public.
“The principal audience for the parade is the Chinese people,” said Rory Medcalf, head of the national-security college at Australian National University in Canberra.
“This will be a way for the leadership to demonstrate to the Chinese people that China will never again be coerced or bullied by external powers.”
The military parade is China’s fourth since 1960 and its first to mark the end of World War II; others have been on the anniversary of Mao Zedong’s declaration of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
Among the parade’s features: 12,000 troops, 500 tanks and scores of planes and missiles.
Before the parade, state media said 84 percent of the hardware on display had never been seen by the public.
China views modernization of its army as essential to achieving great power status and what Xi calls the “Chinese dream” of national rejuvenation. China’s military defeats and widespread suffering at the hands of foreign military powers including England, France and Japan in the 1800s and 1900s — during the first and second Opium Wars and World War II — have long been seen as deep humiliations by many Chinese.
So parading a raft of new missiles and tanks through Beijing was an opportunity to offer evidence that Chinese leaders are taking decisive measures to ensure such national embarrassments are not repeated.
“Domestically, this is aimed at fostering a unity or togetherness of the Chinese people; it’s about realizing the ‘Chinese dream’ and building strength together,” said Xu Guangyu, a retired Chinese military officer and consultant to the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association.
Authorities pulled out all the stops to ensure that the parade went according to plan, temporarily closing residential compounds, commercial areas and transportation hubs, replacing entertainment programming with documentaries and anti-Japanese war dramas, and requiring people to hang large Chinese flags outside their homes and shops. They shuttered thousands of polluting factories, ensuring a day of bright blue skies.
Many Chinese citizens see Xi as a forceful, charismatic leader whose campaign to root out corruption in the Communist Party is welcome and long overdue.
But this summer, many crises — a deadly ferry capsizing, the plunging stock market, a deadly blast at a chemical warehouse — have started to raise questions about the Chinese government’s competence and integrity during trying times.
In early June, the nation was consumed by the story of a ferry sinking on the Yangtze River, killing 442 people, the country’s worst shipping disaster since the Communist Party came to power in 1949.
A month later came the steep decline in China’s stock market. Many investors only started buying stocks this spring, after state-run media urged the masses to buy into a raging bull market, and felt burned by the sudden reversal of fortune.
Authorities introduced panicky measures to stop the slide, providing large loans for buying, dramatically restricting selling, and censoring negative sentiment in the media and online.
In mid-August, the nation was rattled by the massive explosion at a chemical warehouse in the eastern port city of Tianjin.
The huge blast damaged buildings miles away, left more than 150 people dead, and raised questions about why the facility was allowed to be so close to residential areas.
Chinese reporters and citizens asked whether the warehouse owners had used their political connections to skirt regulations, and whether officials were honest about possible hazards in the air and water.
The calamities have taken place against the backdrop of a slumping economy, posing a challenge to a ruling party that has staked much of its legitimacy on its ability to ensure continued prosperity and growth.
Concern is mounting that the country will not be able to meet the target for 7 percent economic growth this year — and that regulators are not making the right moves to put the economy and markets on better footing.
After Tianjin, China’s stock markets took another plunge, and authorities decided to slightly devalue China’s currency, the renminbi.
Xi has made no public comment on the stock-market crisis.