The last time China held a military parade was six years ago, to celebrate the People’s Republic of China’s 6oth birthday. The official title of Thursday's parade is: “Commemoration of 70th anniversary of victory of Chinese people’s resistance against Japanese Aggression and World Anti-Fascist War.”
In other words, China is celebrating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. According to Dali Yang, political science professor and director of the University of Chicago’s center in Beijing, China’s leaders are putting on this parade to send two important messages. The first one is for the rest of the world: "The Chinese leadership is trying to send a signal, to the West in particular," notes Yang, "that China was then allied with the West. At the time, communist countries and capitalist countries were allied against fascists."
Chinese military helicopters fly over the city during a rehearsal ahead of Thursday's military parade (ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images)
But here’s the problem: The leaders of China’s old wartime allies, like the United States and the United Kingdom, aren’t attending this celebration against fascism.
So who RSVP’d?
The list includes Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, Venezuela’s dictator Nicolás Maduro, and Sudan’s Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who is wanted by the international criminal court for crimes against humanity and genocide. They’ll all sit together while Chinese troops goose-step by, a type of marching George Orwell called “one of the most horrible sights in the world.”
Which leads us to what Yang says is the second, more important, message China wants to convey with this parade: “Having such a parade would allow President Xi, who is fighting corruption and trying to consolidate his power of the military, to show the country that he is the person who is in control of the military, and that China stands strong and tall to the world.”
At no other time in Xi Jinping’s presidency has it been so crucial to convince his countrymen he’s in control. The 62-year-old leader has sent shockwaves through China’s Communist Party after his anti-corruption campaign led to disciplinary actions against a staggering 414,000 government officials. China’s economic transition has also been bumpy as of late. But whenever the going gets tough in China, a familiar enemy is rolled out. “One thing the country can get behind is a general and well-entrenched loathing of Japan,” says China historian Jeremiah Jenne.
The Japanese killed an estimated 20 million Chinese in World War II; only the Soviet Union lost more people in the conflict. Yet China’s key role in fighting off the Japanese is largely forgotten in Western accounts of the war.
But it’s not in China.
Since the 1980s, state broadcasters have aired 302 television series chronicling China’s wartime resistance to the Japanese. Today, 33 of these anti-Japanese war dramas — including a cartoon for children — remain, aired on Chinese television at all hours of the day. The residue of all this programming rushes to the surface when residents in an alley neighborhood behind Beijing’s Tian’anmen Square are asked whether they’re going to watch Thursday’s parade.
"You bet I’m going to go and watch!" screams shop owner Zeng Xiangren before loudly chanting "Down with Japanese imperialism! Down with Japan!"
Zeng's 3-year-old relative yells “down with Japan” too.
Across town on the campus of People’s University, the opinion about Japan is more nuanced.
“‘I feel like as individuals, the Japanese are good, their education level is high," says 19-year-old incoming freshman Hu Jingyi. "But as a nation, their ideas are extreme. I just feel like they’re very frightening. Their national cohesion is very scary.”
National cohesion can be very scary, of course. But for a fast-rising global power dealing with the demons of its past while trying to manage an historic economic transformation in the present, national cohesion can also be seen as crucial.