The event marked Victory Day, which was invented as a holiday only in 2014 to mark the end of the People’s War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression, as the years leading up to and during the second world war are known in China. It was China’s first large-scale military parade since 2009, the first to celebrate anything other than the Communist Party’s rule and the first involving foreign troops. But Mr Xi did not have to hold it. Such parades had always been reserved for the decennial anniversaries of the founding of the People’s Republic on October 1st 1949. This one came out of sequence, four years early. Why?
The government described the display as an international celebration, befitting the 70th anniversary of an Allied victory. But an online article in the People’s Daily, the party’s mouthpiece, earlier this year made clear what this meant. The parade’s purpose, it said, was to “deter Japan” and “show off China’s military might”. This was promptly toned down to “conveying to the world that China is devoted to safeguarding international order after world war two, rather than challenging it”. China argues that the main threat to the international status quo is the desire of Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, to rewrite his country’s pacifist constitution. So the polite version is not, in fact, all that different from the blunt one.
Thirty heads of state or government joined Mr Xi on the reviewing stand, including Vladimir Putin (hardly a notable guardian of the international order, but never mind). Their countries form a map of those parts of the world where China’s clout is strong: Central Asia (leaders of four of its five “stans” turned up), parts of South-East Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos); Africa (South Africa, Egypt, Sudan); as well as, increasingly, eastern Europe. The only surprising visitor was South Korea’s Park Geun-hye, fresh from a tense stand-off with the North. She resisted American pressure to turn down the invitation, presumably in the hope of persuading China to exert some moderating influence on its capricious North Korean client.
But no other presidents or prime ministers came from democracies which fought on the same side as China during the war: that is, America and its Western allies. The prospect of watching Chinese soldiers goose-stepping in a square around which, 26 years ago, the army had slaughtered hundreds if not thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators proved too much for Westerners to stomach. Earlier this year the Chinese had toyed with the idea of laying on an accompanying civilian bash, which Europeans and Americans could have attended. But nothing came of that.
Mr Xi is unlikely to have been surprised or disappointed by the West’s absence. Standing with Mr Putin enabled him to show a defiance of the West, which the party likes to portray as bent on keeping China weak. Soon after he assumed power, Mr Xi and fellow leaders visited a museum next to Tiananmen Square to see an exhibition called “The Road to Rejuvenation”. It purports to show how the Chinese people, having been “reduced to a semi-colonial, semi-feudal society since the Opium War of 1840, rose in resistance against humiliation and misery.” On Victory Day last year, the same leaders did much the same thing, this time visiting a museum in Beijing commemorating the war. Its displays aim to show that China’s wartime resistance to Japan was its first victory after the “century of humiliation”.
At the parade, Mr Xi spelled out the contemporary significance of such visits. Rather as America and the Soviet Union had become superpowers because of what they did in the war, the president argued, so China’s wartime role had “re-established China as a major country”.
A huge display of weaponry reinforced the point. Twelve thousand troops marched past, with attack helicopters roaring overhead in a formation spelling out the number 70. China gave the world a first sight of new tanks, fighters and bombers, and of several new missile systems. These included the DF-16 medium-range ballistic missile, two nuclear-capable intercontinental types (the DF-5B and DF-31A) and the so-called “carrier killer”, the DF-21D that can destroy an aircraft-carrier in one blow (see chart). All these are of concern to America.
A hefty dose of historical revisionism was also on display, aimed at burnishing the party’s wartime achievements. Chinese historians often complain that the sacrifices of their soldiers and people during the second world war are shamefully neglected. Their complaint is justified: 14m Chinese people perished at the hands of Japanese troops or as a result of famine. But there is a problem. Although Communist forces engaged in guerrilla fighting, the brunt of the battlefield campaign was borne, as Rana Mitter of Oxford University points out, by Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang (the KMT, which now rules Taiwan). China glosses over the KMT’s role.
The parade was also aimed at showing off Mr Xi himself. For the president it was an opportunity, nearly three years after taking over as China’s leader and amid a fierce campaign against corruption in the party and army, to show that he is truly in charge (and not at all anxious about the country’s economy: keeping the air clean for the parade involved stifling swathes of northern China’s industry, see article). The foreign dignitaries were his spear-carriers.
Mr Xi has closer links with the 2.3m-strong armed forces than any recent president. Early in his career he was a personal secretary to the defence minister. Unlike his predecessors, he took over the party’s main instrument for controlling the armed forces, the Central Military Commission (CMC), immediately upon taking office.
He has displayed muscle to his commanders in a way that earlier party leaders rarely dared to do—charging numerous generals with corruption, including the two highest-ranking officers under his predecessor: Xu Caihou (now dead) and Guo Boxiong. Mr Xi is now filling senior ranks with his own protégés. In an intriguing recent example, an order promoting to full general the head of the People’s Armed Police (PAP), a paramilitary force, bore Mr Xi’s signature first. Normally, the prime minister’s name comes first on PAP promotions.
How Mr Xi is viewed by senior officers is hard to judge. Many of them must be grumbling about the erosion of their privileges as a result of his anti-corruption efforts. Mr Xi will want to ensure their support with more than just morale-boosting parades—one reason why he is unlikely to scale down the double-digit increases in military spending in which he and his predecessors have indulged for many years (though, as he announced at the parade, he will continue efforts to trim the ranks—this time by 300,000). But the message he wanted to send with the show was as clear as the skies: China is resurgent and so are the armed forces, of which Mr Xi is the undisputed commander-in-chief.