By Julieanna Luo
Beijing’s grandiose military parade memorializing the 70th anniversary of the Second World War’s end has drawn a great deal of attention at home and abroad. If you are an avid reader of the New York Times, you might have read articles proclaiming “China Announces Cuts of 300,000 Troops at Military Parade Showing Its Might” and “Military Parade in China gives Xi Jinping a platform to show grip on Power.” In its characterization of the politics surrounding this parade, the New York Times presents itself as a distant and detached observer, but nevertheless fails to understand the non-western perspective this time. Routinely reading the Times at Pierce Hall first thing in the morning has made me see realize foreign analysis of China’s military parade presents interesting, but incomplete, perspectives.
Most Chinese, especially those in Beijing, have spent months anticipating the parade for a number of reasons. The Chinese government announced a special three-day September holiday to mark this special event. In addition, Beijing officials have shut factories and regulated cars in order to ensure “parade blue”skies in contrast with the smog that normally surrounds the capital. As a result, many people, including my parents, have been waiting for the parade to end so they can drive their cars every day.
Audience members shed tears when they saw the veterans waving, sitting in cars slowly driving through Tiananmen Square, knowing they will not live to see how China has changed 10 years from now.
The parade took place the morning of September 3rd for less than three hours, but celebrated a long, hard-won victory. On Sep 2nd 1945, China accepted the surrender of Japan after 14 years of devastating combat, which started with Japan’s brutal invasion of the northeast provinces of Manchuria in 1931. The parade itself began with a salute to war veterans (all of them 90 years or older), and several veterans who fought in the war were part of the parade. Audience members shed tears when they saw the veterans waving, sitting in cars slowly driving through Tiananmen Square, knowing they will not live to see how China has changed 10 years from now. If my grandfather, who fought in the war, was still alive, he would be happy too, even if he was just watching the celebration at home.
To dismiss the anniversary as mere government propaganda is inaccurate. The century of Chinese history preceding WWII was a time of darkness, failure and humiliation, when troops from multiple countries invaded and colonized China and the country suffered crippling defeats during the Opium Wars. This stretch culminated with the Japanese occupation of 1931-1945, during the course of which China suffered 35 million dead, accounting for a third of the world’s total casualties during WWII. This is not an anniversary that China takes lightly.
On social media, many Chinese shared pictures and stories of their elder relatives to commemorate history and reflect on how much the country has been through during and since the war. While it is true that the government has used WWII to stir up nationalism, it is inarguably the darkest period of time in the history of China, and something Chinese shall never forget. The parade did not delve into anti-Japanese sentiment as some have accused, but rather the viewers were united by a shared history and sentiment that the horrors endured in the Second World War can never be repeated. As I see it, the military parade primarily served a domestic purpose, though the international media is often keen to link it with Chinese foreign policy. On Chinese websites, authors and bloggers tend to focus on the non-political aspects of the parade, like Chinese audiences applauding female soldiers who marched in the parade. For Chinese abroad, including myself, gathering together and watching the parade while missing home together was a powerful experience.
In its characterization of the politics surrounding this parade, the New York Times presents itself as a distant and detached observer, but nevertheless fails to understand the non-western perspective this time.
The parade was not just a show, of course, it was a mobilization for the entire PLA (People’s Liberation Army) the armed forces of China, the largest in the world. In fact, each branch of the military — the PL Army, PLA Navy, PLA Air Force, and the Second Artillery Corps were involved. 56 PLA generals actively participated in the parade themselves by marching with their soldiers. Considering the PLA experienced its largest personnel change since the Cultural Revolution throughout Xi’s anti-corruption movement, the parade itself is clearly a power exercise to reemphasize the Party’s absolute control. Outside observers see it as a display of the assertive stance China has taken in the region with territorial disputes, but from public opinions generated from the parade, most Chinese are against military move outside mainland China. As Xi’s speech says, “War is like a mirror; looking at it helps us better appreciate the value of peace.” Even though the parade featured some of China’s newest fighter jets, missiles, drones, including nuclear missiles, it also signified that the Chinese government and people stand together to actively push forward a more peaceful world. A 300,000 personnel cut in troops is one of many such signals.
The list of foreign attendees, however, is a clear public relations failure for China, judging from the fact that major western powers refused to send their presidents and prime ministers to Beijing’s parade. The president of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, who was indicted by the International Criminal Court on genocide charges, came as an “old friend of the Chinese people,” sparking a negative response from the outside world. There were also appearances by South Korean leader Park Geun-Hye, as well as the always-handsome Vladmir Putin. China’s continued rise on the world stage will no doubt be closely examined by the outside world. One the one hand, it means the Chinese need to be careful about their behavior. On the other hand, this also heightens the need for the public outside of China to be responsible observers of its actions.
Watching the parade oversea also brought back my memory when I was “a flower”—one of many thousands junior high students, who were required to collectively participate (by standing in the background) in Tiananmen, during the 60th anniversary of founding of the People’s Republic of China. Our whole school trained for the parade that entire hot dry summer of 2009, and after six years, the memory has almost faded. Still, it was an experience I miss.