Mixed Messages

 /  Oct. 18, 2015, 3:14 p.m.


From the sweat beading president Xi Jinping’s forehead to the eerily deserted streets of central Beijing, there was something curiously joyless about the mercilessly sunny morning of China’s much-hyped military parade. Indeed, the September 3rd parade, which commemorated the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, was planned down to the minute with an exacting precision that left no room for spontaneity. Despite a media frenzy in the days preceding the parade that aimed to fire up public excitement and encourage nationalism, the event seemed wholly detached from the people themselves. While many Chinese expressed positive opinions of the parade, the government seemed more interested in keeping them away rather than allowing them to participate.

As I watched the parade on television, along with the vast majority of China’s population, I was struck by the emptiness of Tian’anmen Square, which struck a stark contrast to images from other iconic moments in China’s history: Mao Zedong fierily addressing cheering crowds from the balcony of Tian’anmen, the student protests and subsequent crackdown of 1989. In those images, central Beijing teemed with people, radiating an electric excitement, a sense of happening. Now, in the same place where Mao shook hands with ecstatic workers from his armored vehicle during the military parades of the 1960s, Xi stayed well clear of the perfectly disciplined troops who lined the roads. He addressed them only with the conventional “Greetings, comrades!” and “Comrades, you have worked hard,” his monotone amplified by a crackling megaphone. I was almost disappointed, bored: for all the supermodern missiles that rolled past in drab camouflage paint, the parade felt curiously sterile. For the entire week, the city had operated in a state of partial lockdown: markets and roadside vendors were banned from the streets, and throngs of temporary security lined every corner.

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L: Mao Zedong greeting the masses on May 1, 1967; R: Xi Jinping greeting troops on September 3, 2015.

Even as I followed the crowds that spilled onto the streets after the parade, hoping to catch a glimpse of the troops and new weaponry up close, the government’s paranoia was palpable. Security forces screamed at any person who began to step past onto the curb, or press against the yellow tape. Residents who lived in close proximity to the planned path were forbidden from having guests, opening windows, or leaving their buildings during the duration of the parade. Never before had living in Beijing felt so much like living in a police state. Why, I wondered, was Beijing so obsessed with the possibility of something going wrong, so fearful that one of their own would interrupt their perfect show? China’s faultless show of power unintentionally exposed Beijing’s anxieties and the risks of putting on a spectacle at such a sensitive moment.

Certainly, the China of 2015 is much changed from the China of 2009, the year of the most recent military parade, and is nearly unrecognizable as the nation that experienced the tumult of the Mao and Deng eras before its breakneck rise to economic stardom. China doesn’t put on military parades on a regular basis: the last two were held in 2009, for the 60th anniversary of the PRC’s founding, and in 1999, to commemorate the turn of the century. They undeniably add another dimension to current events, putting them in sharp focus. The timing of this military parade fell at a particularly striking time, punctuated by the recent stock market crash and chemical explosions in Tianjin, which happened merely seventy miles away. Placed in the context of those events, the military parade seemed to emphasize failings in governance. Beijing, it appeared, was unwilling to allocate resources to ensure the safety of its citizens and the stability of its economy, but spent heavily to put on a lavish military show. Even while the government was spending on custom-fitted uniforms for every soldier, it couldn’t contain the hazardous chemicals lurking in China’s biggest cities.

When it comes to putting on a good face for international observers, Beijing spares no expense. As I drove through a far-flung northern suburb of Beijing two weeks before the parade, I passed by a long section of thick, camouflage-patterned walls that stood several meters high. With guards stationed at strategic checkpoints, gates, and watchtowers, the formidable barrier resembled a surreal, modern-day Great Wall. Straining to glimpse something behind the tightly sealed gates, I could only see a wide expanse of stone-paved space. When I asked my companions what in the world they were guarding, they laughed and told me that it was a 1:1 replica of Tian’anmen Square that was being used to carry out rehearsals for the parade. Dumbstruck, I expressed my surprise that Beijing would spend the money to rebuild Tian’anmen Square simply for the purpose of rehearsing the parade. “Oh,” they said, apparently surprised by my ignorance of common knowledge. “They do this for every military parade.” However, with the world’s standards for Chinese behavior and responsibilities changing, is it a good idea for Beijing to simply repeat what worked in the past?

Connections with the past were on full display during the parade, which was political theater at its finest. Despite rumors that President Xi was at odds with previous leaders and suspicions that he was looking to oust their supporters, both Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, as well as a host of former premiers, appeared on Tian’anmen alongside him. It was fitting for an atmosphere of old-school socialist glory. The Communist Party was evidently aiming to display a strong and unified front, quelling rumors about the internal rifts and power struggles that are allegedly destabilizing the party from within. Nonetheless, seeing the architects of China’s rise arrayed on one stage prompted me to wonder what elements of “traditional” CPC governance would be preserved and what changes would need to be made, if there were to be more of these extravaganzas in the country’s future.

Since the last parade, China's relations with both its neighbors and the wider international community have become increasingly close but also increasingly strained. While China has made progress with economic liberalization, significant parts of its political and economic systems remain closed and opaque. The government has been selective in regards to what it exports and imports, causing some to complain that it has been leveraging its own position at the cost of others who are playing fair. Analysis and concerns over China’s recent currency devaluation, which made international headlines days before the parade in August, exemplified this concern. For China to fully integrate into international trade and financial systems, it has to learn to play by the rules—which sometimes means sacrificing its own advantage. It’s unclear if the CPC is ready to do that yet, particularly when the Chinese economy is beginning to falter. As concerns over increasing Chinese investment in Africa and South America demonstrate, the international community is still wary of the environmental and social consequences of Chinese businesses investing abroad, typically with government encouragement.

Economic governance aside, the increase in Chinese interference beyond its borders has been causing concerns for its neighbors. Some have interpreted the parade as a signal that Beijing will continue to focus on projecting its power overseas, a fear of many Western countries that have watched China’s expansion into the South China Sea, and the resulting tensions with Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Of the countries that marched in the military parade—most notably Russia, but also Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, and Mongolia—few were American allies. Many were countries sandwiched between Russia and China that could afford to affront neither power. Despite Xi Jinping’s surprise announcement at the parade that military personnel would be reduced by 300,000, there was no indication that China’s military capabilities would be weakening. Indeed, many of the newly unveiled weapons demonstrated surprising capabilities that caused reverberations throughout the international defense community, including a “carrier-killer” missile that can change direction and hone in on a target while in orbit. However, several Chinese citizens who spoke with me insisted that tensions with countries, particularly the Philippines and Japan, were instigated by the other countries, not China—and China was simply defending territories and resources it held a legitimate claim to.

Despite its efforts to strengthen its international presence, the CPC can’t shelve its numerous domestic issues. As Chinese citizens’ incomes rise, so do their expectations. Gleaming malls, stadiums, and skyscrapers are impressive, but do little to correct deeper underlying problems with serious long-term effects. As the consequences of these problems come to light in the form of of stark income inequality, deserted “ghost cities” and tumbling stocks, the CPC must commit to making changes if China is to continue to grow. The military parade may only have acted as an especially spectacular skyscraper that diverted attention away from the realities of the challenges ahead, bathing the country in a glow of nationalistic pride and implying that the true blame for the country’s troubles lies abroad, in Japan and the United States. Blaming the outside world is the oldest strategy in the CPC’s book. But as the glow of the military parade fades, and China becomes increasingly tied to other major world economies, anti-Japanese sentiment may begin to lose its edge.

As CCTV’s monopoly on news weakens, and the state television broadcaster simply becomes a mouthpiece for the Party, capturing the attention of all Chinese for any sustained period of time is no longer a simple task. These days, real news appears first on microblogs and social media sites like Sina Weibo and WeChat.  One Chinese joked to me that it had been pointless to get up early to watch the 10 a.m. parade, as all state television channels were simply looping the footage for the rest of the day. Despite the huge cost and effort that went into perfecting those short three hours of glory, the real news of the summer, both inside and outside of China, was the stock market collapse, currency devaluation, and shocking industrial accidents. The military parade was meant to communicate strength, stability, and power. However, against this backdrop of uncertainty, transition, and dissatisfaction, it may indeed have exposed the paradoxes and challenges of daily life and governance in a country that carefully chooses the face it reveals to the outside world.

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here

Elaine Yao


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