President Xi Jinping announced Thursday that China will cut its military by 300,000 troops, a significant reduction in one of the largest militaries in the world and a move that the Chinese leader called a gesture of peace.
“The great renewal of the Chinese nation requires the dedicated efforts of one generation after another,” Xi said in a speech at Tiananmen Square commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in the Pacific.
“Having created a splendid civilization of over 5,000 years, the Chinese civilization will usher in an even brighter future,” he said.
Xi’s announcement came as China’s ruling Communist Party staged a massive military parade in central Beijing, sending a stream of goose-stepping troops, tanks, and ballistic missiles down a major east-west thoroughfare as fighter jets zoomed overhead trailing multicolored smoke.
Xi’s speech kicked off the parade -- officially called the “Commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Victory of Chinese People’s Resistance Against Japanese Aggression and World Anti-Fascist War.”
An estimated 12,000 troops – about 1,000 of whom hailed from Belarus, Cuba, Tajikistan, and other countries – marched along the 10-lane Changan Avenue from the commercial center Wangfujing to Tiananmen Square, about 1.5 miles away. They were joined by 200 fighter jets and 500 pieces of military hardware, including tanks and ballistic missiles.
Representatives from 49 countries were in attendance, including Russian leader Vladimir Putin, South Korean President Park Geun-hye and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
Rory Medcalf, head of the national security college at Australian National University, said that Beijing may have decided to cut 300,000 troops “in the name of efficiency and cost saving so that the defense budget can be reallocated to 21st century capabilities.”
“Infantry are no longer a measure of power,” he said. “One metric to watch is overall military spending, which goes up in China by double digits each year - ahead of economic growth. Another metric to watch is the development of new and leading-edge technologies like cyber, hypersonic missiles and submarines.”
Xi conducted a “troop inspection” after his speech, riding down Changan Avenue in a Chinese-manufactured Hongqi parade car — a black, retro-looking four-door cabriolet with a big grill and round headlights — with his upper body emerging from a hole in the roof.
“Hello comrades!” he repeatedly said into four microphones affixed to the top of the car. “Comrades, you’re working hard!”
Lines of camouflage-clad soldiers alongside the road shouted their support in unison.
Authorities put Beijing on virtual lockdown in advance of the parade. City officials temporarily shuttered residential compounds, commercial areas, and transportation hubs, as well as thousands of polluting factories, ensuring a day of bright blue skies.
They have also ramped up media and Internet censorship ahead of the parade, according to a propaganda department circular leaked to the California-based news website China Digital Times.
“Until Sept. 5, all news and comments related to the military parade must be carefully reviewed before posting to guarantee they are positive and not offensive to the PLA or the military parade; that they do not attack the Party, the PRC, or the political system; and do not attack national leaders,” it said.
On Thursday morning, China’s popular microblogging site Sina Weibo filled up with 350 million comments related to the parade. While many users expressed their patriotism and pride, several posts were laced with cynicism.
“The soldiers are all so wooden — they all just stare without seeing,” wrote one user. Others complained about the cloud of gray exhaust that followed a column of tanks.