Political Signaling in China’s 70th Anniversary Military Parade

On October 1st, the People’s Republic of China showed its might to the world at a grand military parade that marked the 70th anniversary of the founding of the country—despite the shadow cast by the surging violence in Hong Kong. Held every ten years, military parades on National Day have quite a long history in China. Nevertheless, this year’s lavish parade is unprecedented in terms of military modernization and technological advancement displayed (e.g. DF-17 Hypersonic Glide Vehicle, among others). 

Such a magnificent event stirs a storm of evaluations over China’s warfare strength in the military realm around the world. There is a growing body of articles analyzing the eye-catching weapons and equipment on public display at this year’s parade, but very few have touched upon the political meanings behind the parade. This article intends to fill this void.

I find a series of political meanings from largely overlooked details hidden in this ceremonial event, but avoid discussing several intriguing yet insignificant novelties such as the health conditions of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) elders Jiang Zemin (former CCP General Secretary), Hu Jintao (former CCP General Secretary), and the missing Zhu Rongji (former Premier). In essence, there are three issues that are worth closer examination from China watchers.

First, “three flags” and their order. In the 2009 and 2015 Victory Day Parades, the marches were led by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) flag only. This year’s parade, however, closely adhered to the convention started during the 2017 Zhurihe parade; the Honor Guards, who were the first echelon, carried the Party flag, State flag, and the PLA flag—in that order. In addition, “Chairman” Xi Jinping (note that Xi was not greeted by the troops as “Commander” anymore, as was the case during the Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao era) paused for a while and saluted to three flags before he proceeded down Chang’an Avenue inspecting each unit of the PLA. This was the first ever in China’s history.

In China, order always carries significance. The “Party flag-state flag-PLA flag” order unequivocally signals the CCP’s paramount position in the present and the future. It also echoes with Mao Zedong’s philosophy of “the Party commands the gun” (dang zhihui qiang 党指挥枪). In fact, the re-emphasis on the political importance of the CCP’s rule in China is critical at the chaotic moment given that Hong Kong protesters widely cast doubt on the Party’s legitimacy, Xi Jinping’s ambition to transplant “One Country, Two Systems” in Taiwan was absolutely not well-received by both the Pan-Green and Pan-Blue Coalitions early this year, and the hawkish politicians in the United States (e.g. Vice President Mike Pence) chastised the Chinese government for building a national security state.

 Under such turmoil, the order of “three flags” serves as a “stabilizer,” and can be regarded as China’s formal response to these outside noises: no matter how the political circumstances change, the red and yellow symbolizing the CCP will not fade away. For Xi, upholding the CCP’s sole governance in the country is the bottom line, the key to realizing the dream of the Chinese people, as well as the only way to overcoming both domestic and international challenges, thus rendering Party political legitimacy. 

Second, relatives of revolutionary heroes and martyrs. This year’s military parade was followed by an enormous civilian parade, which was led by the relatives of China’s founding leaders (Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Zhu De, Chen Yun, Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping) carrying their portraits. In 2015, only veterans who participated in the Second Sino-Japanese War took part in the parade. This time, the descendants of the founding leaders were invited as well.

Such an arrangement reminded people of Xi Jinping’s creed of “never forget why you started” (bu wang chuxin 不忘初心); in plain words, the CCP members should never forget the original aspiration why they joined the Party. Xi himself even led the six other Politburo Standing Committee members to retake the Party admission oath at the site of the first CCP National Congress in Shanghai, right after he was elected as the Party chief for a second term in 2017. 

Since there is no opposition party in China, the threats to the CCP’s political survival, surprisingly, stems from the Party itself. To Xi, corrupt, greedy and power-hungry elites such as Zhou Yongkang, Bo Xilai, Ling Jihua, Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou were“poisonous weeds” (du cao 毒草) that could have jeopardized the CCP’s roots in the country. As “negative examples,” they must be hunted down. To the contrary, the country’s founding leaders should always be admired and commemorated, as they have devoted their lives to the construction of a new nation. Through this arrangement, Xi implicitly called for all Party members to stay away from bad moral quality, to continue having unshakable belief, and to “keep on striving with endless energy.

Last but certainly not least—personality cult. This point is proved by the fact that Xi’s giant portrait was carried atop a float during the civilian parade. In 2009, only Mao Zedong’s portrait was presented. 10 years later, people saw Xi Jinping, along with Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao. As a matter of fact, after the Mao era, this is probably the first time that the incumbent leader’s giant portrait is displayed during the National Day parade.

There is no doubt that Xi has been consolidating power since he became the host of Zhongnanhai in 2012. Xi—whose power is often compared to that of Mao—has eradicated those who are thought of as his political rivals, institutionalized and therefore legitimize his rule in the country by revising the Constitution last year, and forced the government/Party cadres to study his thoughts every day on the “study powerful country” (xuexi qiangguo 学习强国) phone app. Inarguably, China has made remarkable achievements under his administration, but a transition into “far left” on the political spectrum apparently makes the country less liberal and less welcomed by the community of democratic nations or regions. Seen in this light, it is self-explanatory why dissatisfactions with Beijing are currently surging in Hong Kong, Taiwan and the White House.

These three points all imply sophisticated political meanings in terms of the CCP’s authoritarian rule. To sum up, the past 70th anniversary parade is an enormous celebration of China’s vast strides toward military modernization as well as a sacred ritual that propagates surging leftist sentiments and Xi’s political doctrines. 

(Image: China’s Military Parade in the Victory over Japan Day of World War II,
by Eugene Kaspersky)

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Chutian Zhou

Chutian Zhou has a multidisciplinary background in journalism, finance, political science, and data science. He graduated from the School of Global Policy and Strategy (GPS), UC San Diego in 2017, and later obtained his second Master’s degree from Columbia University with a focus on quantitative social science. His thesis examines non-violent tactics used by the Chinese leader to pre-empt domestic political challenges. At GPS, Chutian's interests lie in Chinese elite politics, cross-strait relations, and methodology. He is now based in New York working as a data analyst.

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