On 3 September 2015 the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) held a military parade in Tiananmen Square, Beijing commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of the War of Resistance against Japan. As China’s first military parade in 66 years, it was highly anticipated, with much of Beijing grinding to a halt for the celebration. While ostensibly about celebrating the end of the war, the parade and the discourse surrounding it was full of contradictions.
The first contradiction was the disparity between what was said and what was displayed. Official discourse prior to the parade stated that its only purpose was to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Chinese People’s War of Resistance against Japan and that it was not directed against any other country. Nor was it a show of force of China’s strength. On the day of the parade, peace was the dominant theme of the official discourse. Xi Jinping stressed that China would follow the path of "peaceful development", using the word “peace” 18 times in his speech. Xi Jinping also announced that he would reduce China’s military by 300,000 troops. He used this as evidence that China was committed to peaceful development. In the days that followed, state media editorials repeated these themes ad nauseam. One Global Times editorial emphasised that China would never seek hegemony, stating that if peace wins, China wins. Another Xinhua editorial used China’s reduction in troop numbers as further proof that China was not interested in waging war.
However, this ‘peace’ discourse was in sharp contrast to reality. 12,000 troops and officers marched along Chang’an Avenue in Tiananmen Square while 200 aircraft and 500 items of weaponry were on display. Chinese state media reported that 80% of the weapons on display had never officially been revealed before. The new weapons on display were the DF-16 missiles (capable of attacking Japanese and US forces on Okinawa) and the DF-21D (the world’s first deployed anti-ship ballistic missile). The announcement that China would reduce its army by 300,000 was not much more than a token measure with China’s military numbering over 2 million, nearly 50% larger than the US.
The second contradiction was the discourse surrounding China’s history. In Xi Jinping’s speech, he stated that China must “learn the lessons of history” and “bear history in mind," the implicit message being that China respects history. Meanwhile the whole pretext of the parade was to commemorate the role China (i.e. the CCP) played in defeating the Japanese. However, this ignores key historical facts. The main driving force in defeating the Japanese in WWII was the Kuomintang (KMT) Party led by General Chiang Kai-shek, a fact even acknowledged by Zhou Enlai in letters to Stalin. This misleading account of the war was forcefully dismissed by President Ma Ying-jiu from the KMT party in Taiwan (where the KMT troops who defeated Japan then fled to after being defeated by the CCP in the Chinese civil war). He stated that there is only “one historical truth” – that it was the KMT forces and not the CCP forces that led China to victory against Japan.
The final contradiction of the military parade was the claim that the parade was a diplomatic success. As this Xinhua article states, the parade was well attended with Xi Jinping “standing shoulder to shoulder” with world leaders and diplomatic representatives. But this lofty statement is a little misleading. While 30 heads of states attended the parade, many were authoritarian rulers including Sudan’s Omar Hassan al-Bashir and Russia’s Vladamir Putin. The most notable attendees were South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye (who attended in the hope of finding a breakthrough with North Korea) and Ban Ki Moon the Secretary General of the United Nations.
Despite these contradictions, the parade was an unequivocal demonstration of China’s strength. Whether China will do as it says and follow a path of “peaceful development” or whether it will use its military strength displayed to defend its claims in the South and East China seas - and recover the ‘lost’ territories of Taiwan, Xinjiang and Tibet - remains to be seen. The same day of the parade five Chinese warships entered US territorial waters in the Bering Sea. Meanwhile, China continues to build new airstrips on islands in the South China Sea. In light of these assertive posturings the international community can only hope that China stays true to its word and respects the peace it claims to so strongly uphold.
Marie-Alice McLean-Dreyfus is the East Asia Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.
Image credit: Wikimedia, Creative Commons