Since 1960, China has held just three military parades, and always on Oct. 1, when the country celebrates its National Day.
This year, however, the country appears to planning such an affair in September, to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, according to reports in Chinese state media.
Such an event would be a bold stroke by President Xi Jinping, analysts said, coming less than three years after he took over as the head of the Chinese Communist Party. The parade would be a chance to highlight China’s growing military strength – and Xi’s control of the armed forces.
The Hong Kong-based newspaper Wen Wei Po first reported Friday that a military parade would be held in Beijing this year, quoting the city’s police chief, Fu Zhenghua. But the article was soon pulled offline, and Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying refused to confirm the story when asked about it at a press briefing.
This week, the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily posted a story on its official social media account that discussed why China plans to hold a military parade this year. When that article remained online and was cited widely by Chinese press Tuesday, the military parade began to look like a done deal.
Official tentativeness about confirming the arrangements might be expected, given how sensitive such events can be in China. The nation has held a total of 14 military parades since the Communist Party took over in 1949. But the first 11 took place between 1949 and 1959, under the leadership of Mao Tse-tung, who was revered as almost a God-like figure by many Chinese at the time.
After the Mao era, leaders Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao each got one shot at overseeing military parades during their tenures; all three took place on National Day. The most recent one came in 2009, when the nation celebrated the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
The 2015 parade, however, is apparently going to be staged on a new holiday that was introduced in China last year to commemorate the end of World War II. The holiday is officially known as “Victory Day of the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression.”
The plan “shows Xi has big ambitions, and he has a strong sense of pride about himself,” said Jin Zhong, a Hong Kong-based political analyst. “He dares to do things only Mao Tse-tung could do.”
Jin said he believes that Xi has already proven to have a tighter grip on power than his predecessors Jiang and Hu. He did not expect there to be many voices opposed to the move inside the party.
Xi launched a sweeping anti-corruption campaign after he took office in late 2012 and brought down powerful figures in the Chinese military, including Xu Caihou, a former vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, the top military policy-making body. Xi now chairs that commission and is the commander-in-chief of the People’s Liberation Army.
Xi needs the military parade to show the Chinese public that his control over the military is unchallengeable, said Beijing-based historian Zhang Lifan.
“After cleansing the Chinese military by sacking a couple of senior military officials, Xi wants to take complete control of the PLA in China,” Zhang said. “The Communist Party has always stressed that 'authority comes from guns.' To establish the Communist Party’s absolute control of the military is key to the party’s survival in China.”
A military parade would also demonstrate “China’s determination to maintain the postwar peace” and send a message to the Japanese government, the People’s Daily said. Japan, which invaded China in 1931 and stayed until the end of World War II in 1945, has recently sought to relax some of the restraints on military activities imposed by its postwar, pacifist constitution.
But Jin, who runs the Open Magazine in Hong Kong, dismissed the notion that the military parade was specifically aimed at Japan.
“It’s more about Xi’s ambitions in foreign policy. Backed by the world’s second-largest economy, Xi wants China to become the second-strongest nation in the world, behind the United States,” Jin said.
Despite friction between Beijing and Tokyo, Jin said, for China to assert itself as a true world power, it needs to maintain strong relations with powerful nations such as Japan, the world’s third-largest economy. He noted that China’s rhetoric on conflicts with Japan has softened significantly in recent months.
A large parade in September marking the defeat of Japan in World War II might also offer Beijing a chance to build bridges with Taiwan.
The island has been ruled separately from the mainland since 1949, following a civil war in China that saw Mao’s Communists drive Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists, or Kuomintang, off the mainland.
But both Communists and Nationalists fought against the Japanese occupiers. When Japan signed a surrender agreement with China and the U.S. in September 1945, it was a representative sent by the Kuomintang-led government who signed on behalf of China.
For years, Communist authorities sharply downplayed the contributions of the Kuomintang forces during WWII, or even faulted its army for not fighting hard enough against the Japanese. During Mao’s 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, many of the World War II veterans who had fought for China were imprisoned and some of them executed for being part of the Kuomintang army.
In recent years, however, Communist leaders’ relations with the Kuomintang have changed dramatically, Zhang said.
Among the major political parties in Taiwan, the Kuomintang is often viewed as a pro-China group that wants to build a closer relationship with Communist authorities on the mainland. The Kuomintang currently holds Taiwan’s presidency, though it has recently seen its support eroded amid criticism that it has pursued too many trade and other agreements with the mainland.
“Now the Chinese communist party and the Kuomintang need to make use of each other for their own interests and political agenda,” Zhang said. “I think the Communist Party may extend an invitation to the Kuomintang in Taiwan [to attend the parade]. But it remains to be seen if the Kuomintang is willing to accept such an invitation.”
Tommy Yang in the Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.