The Chinese Communist Party pulled off its biggest WWII military parade ever on Thursday, shutting down central Beijing for spectacle of marching soldiers, rumbling tanks, patriotic music and never-before-seen missiles and other military equipment.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and some 29 lesser-known world leaders joined Chinese President Xi Jinping in watching the procession, held to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Aircraft with colored contrails soared over Tiananmen Square on a nearly perfect blue-sky day, which the Chinese Communist Party helped manufacture by shutting down hundreds of polluting industries in and around Beijing.
With so much weaponry on display, some of China’s neighbors were wary of the parade. Japan was one of those, seeing it as another chapter in Beijing’s efforts to whip up anti-Japanese sentiment.
But China’s President Xi Jinping didn’t seem to care about the international optics. Experts say he seemed to be aiming his message largely at the Chinese people, whose trust in the Communist Party’s governance has been shaken recently by China’s economic downturn and the Tianjin industrial disasters.
“From a soft power perspective it (the parade) is a loser, especially in the United States,” said Sam Crane, a China scholar who teaches at Williams College in Massachusetts. “But the key audience for this is less the world and more the domestic population. It is Xi saying to Chinese: I have helped to make us strong again and I am willing to show the world that we are strong, even if the world is uncomfortable with us being strong.”
The U.S. Navy is likely to be uncomfortable with at least one military item that was unveiled Thursday - China’s DF-21D “carrier killer” missile. Also known as the Dongfeng (east wind), this missile has a reported range of 960 miles and can travel at 10 times the speed of sound.
Some analysts think it could make aircraft carriers obsolete, although the real range and accuracy of the Dongfeng is impossible to verify.
The DF-26 intermediate range missile is another Chinese weapon that made an appearance at the parade. It is known as “the Guam killer,” because it has a range that could take out the U.S. Navy base in Guam.
Since becoming president, Xi has sought to beef up China’s navy and high-tech defense capabilities, by redirecting funds from the army. On Thursday he took a big step in that direction. At the ceremony, he announced he would cut 300,000 troops from China’s army of 2.3 million. China’s defense ministry says the cuts be completed by the end of 2017.
Xi also surprised some observers by standing before the procession with former President Jiang Zemin. For months, China watchers have posited there may be mounting tension between Xi and the former president, partly because Xi has targeted some of Jiang’s allies in his anti-corruption campaign.
Before the troops, tanks and missiles started rolling down Chang’an Avenue, past the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, Xi delivered a speech. Instead of his normal dark business suit, he was dressed in what the state-run Xinhua news service called “a sharply cut, high-collared Mao suit.”
Some had thought Xi might use the occasion to offer some words of rapprochement toward Japan, but that was not to be. If anything, the Chinese president took a dig at Japan, which historians say caused the death of roughly 12 million Chinese during the Sino-Japanese war.
“Regardless of the progress of events, China will never seek hegemony,” Xi said. “China will never seek to expand and will never inflict the tragedies it suffered in the past upon others.”
Since becoming Communist Party secretary in 2012, Xi has sought to re-energize the party’s Leninist origins, even ordering party leaders to re-read Marx and books by other communist luminaries. Yet in public oratory, including Thursday’s speech, there was little inkling of that ideology.
“Although Xi occasionally brings out the Marxism, he must know that that is not going to connect with most Chinese today, especially youth,” said Crane, the Williams College political scientist. “Muscular nationalism is a much easier sell.”
In the days prior to the parade, Beijing felt like a city under siege, with armored vehicles at intersections, streets blocked off and residents ordered not to go on their balconies if they lived along the parade route. With restaurants and stores closing the day before the parade, people stocked up on supplies, preparing to hunker down until the government issued the all-clear.
Some 850,000 volunteers were involved in sweeping streets, glitzing up the parade grounds and helping police with security. To make sure Beijing’s birds didn’t get sucked into plane engines, the government deployed monkeys and falcons to scare off them off. According to state media, macaques were unleashed across the city, scampering up trees to destroy birds nests.
On Weibo - China’s main social media platform - some commenters said the parade’s had gone over the top.
“Why practice this way?” said one commenter, who identified himself as Yang Kangling of Guangdong. “How much money from the taxpayers will burnt for a military parade to showcase such a sense of pride?”
At the parade grounds, however, thousands of supporters seemed awed by the spectacle. As tanks rolled by, they waved Chinese flags and sang along with the patriotic music. At the end, when flocks of doves and thousands of balloons soared into the sky, a woman in the stands turned to her husband and said, “Beautiful. Look how beautiful it is!”
McClatchy special correspondent Tiantian Zhang contributed to this report.