China’s ‘Victory Day’ Military Parade: A Worrying SignalRather than signal a desire for peace, the parade was an expression of belligerence that can only contribute to future tensions within a region that very much needs healing
Now that the intermediate-range nuclear missiles, combat aircraft, long-range bombers, rocket launchers, tanks, attack helicopters, 70,000 doves and countless balloons have cleared off from Tiananmen Square in Beijing, we may ask ourselves what today’s display of military strength was all about — and just as importantly, who it was directed at.
On paper, the parade was to commemorate the end of China’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression during World War II and the role played by the Chinese themselves, a not uncontroversial issue given the longstanding disagreement between the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) over which “side” of China did most of the fighting. What was worrying about the large-scale display of modern armaments was the suggestion that militarism, whose fascist iteration ended with Japan’s defeat in the Pacific theater of operations in 1945, was once again something that is deserving of celebration.
Rather than emphasize forgiveness and a desire to look to the future, the display, replete with goose-stepping soldiers and a plethora of weapons that would conceivably play a role in a variety of scenarios from an invasion of Taiwan to the incineration of Hawaii, revealed an expression of nationalism that has explosive shells and armor at its foundations. The contrast with the ceremonies for the 70th anniversary of VE Day in Europe earlier this year could not have been starker — with the exception of those held in Moscow, where military might was also at the center of things. It is little wonder that Russian President Vladimir Putin was at Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) side during much of the ceremonies today.
Which heads of state decided to attend the parade was also very revealing, as many of them were, like Mr. Putin, notorious for their poor human rights record. For a while, the red carpet at the end of which Mr. Xi and his wife awaited the foreign leaders to greet them before the ceremony served as a catwalk for the authoritarians and totalitarians in our midst, despots like Uzbek President Islam Karimov and Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir. Not all of them were murderous tyrants, however, as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and perhaps more surprisingly South Korean President Park Geun-hye, were also there. Other countries, presumably due to their moral ambivalence, chose to send representatives instead. Rank did matter, as their presence could be construed as a seal of approval (or disapproval) for a regime that has become increasingly oppressive in recent months and which has caused serious apprehensions within the region as it flexes its muscles, both militarily and economically.
Many of the foreign guests who chose to attend the parade likely did so in the name of diplomacy, or with the intention of honoring the war dead. But diplomacy should not always be conducted at any price, especially if one’s presence is likely to be interpreted as condoning the behavior of a regime that has had no compunction in repressing its own people, not to mention those whose territory it occupies or threatens to occupy. (According to the organization Chinese Human Rights Defenders, 17 rights activists in Shanghai were “forcibly disappeared” by the authorities prior to the military parade.)
Like any other country, China has every right to modernize its military and to take pride in its extraordinary achievements over the years, but the combination of militarism in the hands of a highly authoritarian regime with a highly chauvinistic and paranoid form of nationalism with deep xenophobic undertones is a worrying mix, to put it mildly. And that is why such a flamboyant display of military equipment probably was a misguided decision.
Also striking was the revisionist language that accompanied the state-sanctioned coverage of the event. At one point, a CCTV commentator said that we should all “remember history” — a rather crass remark coming from a media outlet that has been complicit in the CCP’s efforts to cover a variety of sensitive issues with a blanket of amnesia, from the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989 to the party’s responsibility for the deaths of countless million Chinese in the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Or, for that matter, over the much more prominent role that the KMT played in fighting the Japanese at a time when Communist forces were conserving their strength to fight the Nationalist once the civil war resumed, as everybody knew it would. The narration was reminiscent of a celebrated passage in George Orwell’s novel 1984: “War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.” All of those three elements were alive and well in Beijing in the morning of Sept. 3.
A military commentator who throughout the morning was interviewed by CCTV also maintained that China’s (expansionist) territorial claims, from Taiwan to the South China Sea, had always existed, but that because of its military strength, China finally had the ability to do something about them. At another point during the coverage, an official from China’s National Defense University opined that “There is nothing wrong with flexing our military muscles, as long as we do it for the right reasons.” Needless to say, what constitutes the “right reasons” in Beijing is something of a worry among the countries that could find themselves within their ambit (for example, is using force to defend China’s territorial claims, however illegitimate they might be, a “right reason”?). Combined with narration describing the capabilities of every system that rumbled past the crowd at Tiananmen Square, this was, as Steve Tsang wrote in a recent article for the China Policy Institute Blog, hardly reassuring to audiences elsewhere in the region — including in Taiwan, where I sat watching the live coverage.
The principal difference between the countries in Europe that were victimized by the Third Reich and those in Asia that suffered at the hands of the Japanese Imperial Army lies in the uses of history. In Europe, history has served as a lesson, with a resounding “never again” as the nations chose to build a future together. In Asia, with China assuming the role of regional spokesperson, history is still very much alive, as are the wounds. Rather than serve as a lesson, it seems that history, what with the accumulated hatreds — kept well alive by school curricula and government propaganda — has served as a conduit for a future settling of scores, which hardly promises lasting peace. Hence the military display that we witnessed today. Undoubtedly, the wounds will continue to bleed as long as the Japanese government refuses to walk down the path that was taken by Germany years ago. Tokyo’s obstinacy notwithstanding, China’s response should not be to contribute to the perpetuation of hostilities through militarism.
Today’s parade was not simply a distraction amid economic hardship in China, as the commemorations were prepared well in advance. It was instead an appeal to nationalism and a sign that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) continues to play a crucial role in Chinese politics, which has several implications for the ability of the civilian leadership to keep its ambitions in check.
No matter how we look at it, the Japanese War of Aggression against China was a catastrophe for the Chinese people, and the sacrifices that were made by the millions of Chinese soldiers who participated in the defense of their country — KMT and CCP, as well as ordinary citizens — should be commemorated. I can think of several ways by which their memory could have been honored. Displaying the means to wreak destruction on a much larger scale than was imaginable to the Japanese is hardly the way to go about it.
Undoubtedly a page has been turned, and Japan no longer has the ability (or the desire) to threaten the region the way it did prior to WWII. However, rather than forgiveness and the honoring of the fallen soldiers and civilians, today’s events suggest that Beijing wants to replace militarism with militarism. Notwithstanding the 70,000 “peace doves” that were released at the conclusion of the parade, it’s hard to see how IRBMs and long-range nuclear-capable bombers can be interpreted as symbols of peace.
J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei.