The Slatest

Chinese Leaders Hope to Distract the World From China’s Problems With a Massive Parade

What fun: A paramilitary policeman stands at attention in Tiananmen Square in Beijing on Sept. 2, 2015. 

Photo by Wang Zhao/AFP/Getty Images

No one can throw a military parade quite like the Communists—even mostly lapsed, in-name-only Communists like the current leaders of the People’s Republic of China.

The streets of Beijing have reportedly been eerily quiet on Wednesday, and security is tight ahead of Thursday’s commemoration of the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II.

Thursday’s events will include a speech by President Xi Jinping in Tiananmen Square followed by a military parade meant to show of the superpower’s considerable might, involving 12,000 Chinese troops as well as 1,000 from the militaries of more than a dozen foreign countries, and hundreds of musicians and performers. About 200 aircraft will fly overhead. Several cutting-edge weapons systems, including the new YJ-18 long-range supersonic anti-ship missile, will be displayed in public for the first time. The parade will be guided by a state-of-the-art satellite navigation system as well as protected, oddly enough, by a troop of specially trained macaques.

About 30 heads of state are attending, including Russia’s Vladimir Putin—who hosted a massive Victory Day parade of his own a few months ago—South Korea’s Park Geun-hye, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, South Africa’s Jacob Zuma, and Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro. More controversially, Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, who continues to travel the world despite an international indictment for crimes against humanity, will be in attendance. The leaders of nearly every Western country, including the United States, decided not to attend. Also notably absent is North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who continues his unexplained pattern of never leaving the country.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had been considering attending but decided not to last month. Abe has pushed back against what some Japanese conservatives argue is a “masochistic” series of apologies for Japan’s wartime atrocities. The parade also comes amid an extremely contentious debate in Japan over legislation that would allow the country’s self-defense forces to be deployed in more circumstances. (Japan’s postwar constitution forbids the offensive use of military force.) The idea of expanding military options has been heavily criticized in China, where memories of what is officially called the War of the Chinese People’s Resistance Against Japanese Aggression are still raw, even after 70 years, and many suspect Japan and the United States of working together to contain China’s rise. The Japanese government has strongly criticized U.N. Secretary General Bank Ki-moon for his decision to attend the events in China, arguing that it constitutes a U.N. endorsement of what Japan sees as a nakedly political display.

There was always going to be controversy around the event, which is simultaneously a display of China’s military power, a celebration of the Communist Party’s official version of the country’s history, and a showcase for President Xi, who has acquired an immense level of personal power and developed something of a personality cult in his short time in office.  

But the stakes have been considerably raised after the events of the past few weeks: The recent turmoil in the markets has suggested that the slowdown of China’s economic growth may be more severe than expected and dented the prevailing image of Chinese leaders as ultra-competent stewards of China’s rise to power. As my colleague Jordan Weissmann recently wrote, some of the Chinese government’s recent interventions in the market were likely intended to restore public confidence ahead of the event.

A good old-fashioned display of national might is definitely well-timed, but with doubts about the country’s future growing both at home and abroad, it may not be enough.