Written by Michael Reilly.
Even before it has taken place, China’s 3 September military parade in central Beijing is generating considerable international media comment and speculation. Officially it marks the 70th anniversary of “victory in the war of Japanese aggression.” A not very subtle and barely disguised subordinate theme warns against the spectre of a renewed Japanese militarism through Prime Minister Abe’s plans to amend the constitution, and the now all too familiar message of Japan’s failure to atone fully for atrocities committed by its troops during the war. But many international observers and commentators see beyond this a clear and worrying message to China’s neighbours about its new found military muscle and its willingness, if necessary, to use it.
Others have pointed out the irony – to put it mildly – that the brunt of Chinese resistance to Japan was borne by the Kuomintang regime of Chiang Kai-shek but whose role has been all but airbrushed out of the commemoration, beyond the token and controversial presence at the proceedings of Lien Chan, Honorary Chairman of the KMT. That the CCP played a minimal role in the war is beyond much doubt. Historian Odd Arne Westad has argued that it probably killed more Chinese than Japanese during WW2. According to one of China’s foremost scholars of International Relations, Yan Xuetong, the Cultural Revolution destroyed an age-old tradition of sincerity in China, replacing it by hypocrisy. Looking at the presentation of these events, many outsiders would agree.
But all this arguably misses the main point of the celebrations and sees them from the wrong perspective. It is doubtful whether the CCP’s propagandists ever gave more than a moment’s thought to international reaction to the celebrations which have been conceived from the outset with a domestic audience uppermost in mind. Seen from this angle, the message of the occasion is familiar and well-established, indeed goes back to the very founding of the PRC in 1949. For outsiders, the over-riding images of the PRC in the pre-Deng era are overwhelmingly of chaos and disorder – the Cultural Revolution (famously, even Kim Il Sung thought this too extreme), the mass deaths during the ‘Great Leap Forward,’ border conflicts and more. But most Chinese see it very differently.
Since 1949, the consistent theme of the CCP has been its role in unifying China, bringing it peace and stability and standing up to outside interference and pressure – overcoming the ‘century of humiliation.’ This message finds striking resonance even with many of those who suffered during the Cultural Revolution: neither nationalism nor patriotism are uniquely Chinese virtues (or vices). The 3 September parade is of a piece with this well-established theme and the Chinese are far from being the only country to take no account of international reaction in their organisation of domestic events. Indeed, against this background it would be odd if the PRC were not marking the anniversary in a way designed to promote national pride.
Perhaps a more pertinent question for outsiders to consider is the likely domestic impact of and reaction to the occasion. Will it, as some fear, further fan the flames of nationalism? Is the CCP promoting it as a way of diverting attention from economic problems? Possibly. But propaganda is a bit like investment in infrastructure in that both suffer from the law of diminishing returns so need greater and greater inputs or efforts to achieve a consistent level of impact. Seen this way, the issue is not the parade itself but what follows. Based on past experience, it is quite possible that with the anniversary out of the way, China will find it easier to re-engage meaningfully with Japan. Whether or not it does so will be a mark of Xi Jinping’s statesmanship.
Michael Reilly is a non-resident Senior Fellow at the CPI, a former Director of the British Trade and Cultural office in Taipei and until recently the chief representative in China of a major international aerospace company. Image credit: CC by Dan/Flickr.