The pomp, drama and advanced military technology on display at the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China sent a dramatic, carefully-rehearsed message to the world on Tuesday that China has emerged as a global military power — a formidable rival to the United States.
The dazzling parade played an important domestic role as well, drumming up fervent nationalism and loyalty to the Communist Party of China and President Xi Jinping, at a time when the party feels threatened, with the economy — the main source of its domestic legitimacy — slowing.
It also faces a bruising trade war with the United States, as other Western powers turn against the Chinese government’s policies, particularly its detention of around 1 million minority Muslims, mainly Uighurs, and Beijing’s support for a tough crackdown by Hong Kong authorities on pro-democracy protesters.
The parade sent a confident, almost defiant message to the world that China’s time has come and that its past humiliations — largely by outside intruders and foreign forces — and its strategy of hiding its power and biding its time are over.
“It’s a military parade that is political shock and awe,” said Richard McGregor, China analyst at the Lowy Center, a Sydney-based independent think tank. “It wasn’t so long ago that when China had military parades, they were much smaller. The hardware was much less impressive and they took place in a different diplomatic context — when China was trying to lie low rather than the other way around.
“The medium is the message. It’s designed to look powerful and slightly intimidating and instill a sense of pride at home and deter enemies abroad.”
On Tuesday morning just before the parade, 56 cannons were fired 70 times, shattering the silence in Tiananmen Square. Beijing’s sky was smoggy as Xi and other Chinese leaders took their places on the podium at precisely 10 a.m.
Elsa Kania, adjunct senior fellow with the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, said the parade showcased Xi’s power as military commander in chief and showed how far the military had come since he ordered the military to pursue technological innovation in 2014. She said China’s strategic capabilities may have far-reaching implications for the military balance in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.
“This parade highlights in stark relief the People’s Liberation Army’s ambitions to become a truly world-class military that is leading in new frontiers of military power, from unmanned weapons systems to hypersonic glide vehicles,” she said.
Another theme that permeated was the party’s determination to re-energize the Chinese people — particularly its youth, a generation often obsessed with their smartphones, e-shopping and livestreaming — with deeper loyalty to the party.
Xi said no force could undermine Chinese sovereignty, urging greater efforts to reunify with Taiwan and to uphold Hong Kong’s integrity as a territory with a different political system under the leadership of the Communist Party.
“There’s no force that can shake the foundations of this great nation. No force can stop the Chinese people and the Chinese nation forging ahead!” he declared.
Just 10 months after Xi’s January warning to party apparatchiks that growing political and economic risks in China could threaten the party’s long-term grasp on power, the parade marked a remarkable turnaround in the party’s effort to reinvigorate and stake its legitimacy.
“This is a very important milestone. The party struggles to define and defend its legitimacy and right to rule and it relies very heavily on this narrative of having liberated the country,” said Bates Gill, an expert on China based at Macquarie University‘s Department of Security Studies and Criminology in Sydney.
“The Red Army was instrumental in achieving the victory in 1949 and celebrating the military in this way underscores that the Communist Party, which controls the gun, brought the country out of its humiliation and has now set it on this path to great power status,” he said. Gill added that Xi’s position at the heart of all the military power on display sent a message of firm control to any remaining enemies he had in the party.
Ordinary Chinese watching the parade on television posted messages on social media that they were moved to tears at the message that the nation has risen to greatness after decades of struggle.
“China today is created by hundreds of millions of hard-working Chinese and China’s tomorrow will be even more prosperous! Long live the great People’s Republic of China! Long live the great Communist Party of China! Long live the great Chinese people!” Xi said.
Thousands of people waved flags rapturously throughout the parade, as gigantic portraits of Communist Party leaders, beginning with the founding leader Mao Tse-tung and ending with Xi, were borne along on floats.
The dark episodes of the past were airbrushed away — the massacre of student protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the famine induced by party policies in 1958 or the chaotic Cultural Revolution when officials, teachers, academics and others were denounced by young Red Guards and killed, jailed or sent to the countryside for “reeducation.”
The parade saw China display some of its most advanced military technology for the first time, including 16 Dongfeng-41 [or DF-41] long-range ballistic missiles with a range of up to 9,300 miles, each capable of swiftly striking with 10 separately targeted nuclear warheads.
“Just respect it and respect that China owns it,” tweeted the editor of the state-run Global Times, Hu Xijin. In another tweet he said the message being sent was: “Don’t mess with the Chinese people or intimidate them.”
Although the size of China’s nuclear missile armament stockpile is much smaller than the United States’, China showed off advanced hypersonic weapons capable of maintaining speed and evading interception, ground-to-air missiles capable of intercepting weapons, advanced drones and unmanned submarines. Of the 580 pieces of equipment, 40% were new.
“Showing the DF-41 at this parade means that China already possesses a more powerful missile than this,” posted a Chinese netizen with the handle Gaolinyuan, age 23 of Tianjin.
China also showed off a new hypersonic missile, DF-17, that Chinese netizens proudly joked was a 100% reliable express delivery: “Dongfeng Express at your service. Missions always deliver.”
The intercontinental JL-2 missile, another piece of weaponry eagerly awaited by observers, can be launched from a nuclear submarine. Advanced drones at the parade included the Gongji-11 [or GJ-11] stealth attack drone, capable of striking strategic targets without being detected, according to the Global Times.
“Judging from the drone’s aerodynamic wing design, the GJ-11 is likely to have outstanding stealth capabilities and flying qualities,” Chinese military analyst Wei Dongxu told the Global Times.
Smog obscured details of some of the participating military aircraft.
Chinese officials and commentators tried to balance China’s dramatic show of force with its claims to prize world peace, arguing the display was about transparency.
Senior Col. Zhou Bo told Chinese state-owned CGTN television that the drones on display underscored Chinese determination to lead the world in artificial intelligence by 2030, including China’s military.
He said the advanced weapons and the high morale of the Chinese people meant the country could be confident it would never be bullied.
“China is flying on the top of the world,” he added. “If you view all the new advanced weaponry, you can ask yourself what else do we need? We have almost everything.”
But some analysts said the military parade betrayed signs of the insecurity of the Communist Party.
“The bottom line is this: Rolling nuclear-capable missiles through the streets is the ultimate show of insecurity and Cold War thinking,” tweeted Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at Australian National University.
“The message there I think is pretty clear: We still control the gun. These guys are loyal to us, that’s in some ways the ultimate guarantor of our legitimacy and power. That’s an important message for the domestic audience to absorb,” said Gill. “All that technological prowess speaks to the nationalism or patriotism among the Chinese people of whom many, not all, are proud to see the advances that have accrued to China’s military, able to be used for the defense of China’s expanding international interests.”
The excitement around the 70th anniversary — replete with selfie moments — seemed to unleash a wave of fervent patriotism among young and old alike. McGregor said the parade was an example of the Communist Party’s power to mobilize the country emotionally, a potent tool as it confronts successive difficulties.
He Shunyi, 31, owner of a tiny, narrow cafe serving steamed buns, rice porridge and tea eggs, sat crossed-legged with his chef, watching the parade on his cellphone.
“Nothing was easy,” said He emotionally, linking his own personal hardship with China’s struggle to overcome difficulties. “For the nation to be able to put together everything we see is not easy. Look at the soldiers! Look at their uniforms, their equipment! Everything!
“It also has not been easy for us ordinary people. We came from a small village in Shanxi province. It took our family almost 10 years to be able to move to Beijing to be able to settle down. We came a long way. It wasn’t easy, but we made it.”
In a Beijing restaurant, 29-year-old salesman Zhang Chang from Jiangxi province was so busy watching the parade on his brand new iPhone 11 that he barely paid attention to his girlfriend, Li Jiayi, who vainly tugged at his hand trying to get him to stop staring at the screen and order some food.
“Just order whatever for me,” he mumbled, mesmerized. “Just look at it!” he added pushing the phone under her nose. “Look how exciting it is! Look at the vehicles! Look at the planes!”
One Chinese netizen with the handle Zhongbite ZB posted on Weibo: “Our whole family are in tears. At the beginning we felt embarrassed to show our emotions. Some pretended to turn around or look away. Some pretended to look at their phone. Then nobody could stop themselves anymore and we were all pulling out tissues.”
Special correspondents Nicole Liu and Gaochao Zhang contributed to this report.