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China's parade tells about state of Beijing leadership affairs

analysis Updated: Sep 03, 2015 22:41 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Hindustan Times
China military parade

Military band sing and salute at the Tiananmen Square at the beginning of the military parade marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two, in Beijing, China. (Reuters Photo)

The military parade commemorating the defeat of imperial Japan in World War II — and underlining the Chinese Communist Party's role in war — attempted to send several messages at the same time. All of them tell us something about the present state of affairs in Beijing's leadership.

One, the CCP has reminded its people that the legitimacy of the party's rule originally derived from its defeat of imperialist Japan. The historical record doesn't quite say that: Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist army did the lion's share of the fighting and the communist role was far more limited - because it wanted to husband its forces to defeat the Nationalists.

But in Chinese history, ruling elites rule by the application of a "correct ideology" as their source of legitimacy. The CCP today is only tangentially connected to its ruling ideology of Marxist-Leninism "with Chinese characteristics." World War-II and nationalism in general is rising in importance.

Read: Guns and drones: China's mighty military parade in pics

Global impact: the increasing importance of nationalism to the legitimacy of CCP rule is one reason Beijing has made a blatantly illegal claim on 80% of the South China Sea and intermittently raised tensions with Japan and India regarding disputed territory.

With concerns rife over China's rise, Xi announced that the People's Liberation Army - the world's largest military - would be reduced by 300,000 personnel, although the defence ministry said the cuts would mainly fall on outdated units and non-combat staff.

Two, China has sought to send a message to its neighbours. That a) ultimately, Beijing will emerge as the dominant power in Asia and b) if you are prepared to accept that, you can reap great benefits. In public and in private, Chinese officials and academics repeatedly make the argument that over time, the United States will be pushed out of the Western Pacific or simply acquiesce to Chinese control. So why fight it? The test case is Southeast Asia where Beijing is slowly winning over each of the ASEAN states. Laos and Cambodia are already in its pocket. Malaysia has shifted to a neutral stance. Brunei is trying to strike a deal and Beijing is reportedly trying to influence the next Philippines election in its favour. Hence, the strange mix of missiles and doves, talk of peace and war, marked the military parade. You could be part of a Pax Sinica or you could be left to fend for yourself.

Three, the parade was also a lot about Xi Jinping himself. And rightly so.

Read: Japan 'disappointed' by Chinese prez's speech on WWII anniversary

While Xi has a tight control of the Politburo and Central Committee, he is facing two major domestic challenges at the same time. One, the indications are that he is preparing to take out the powerful Jiang Zemin faction. Jiang's interference was a key reason Hu Jintao was ineffective as a leader. He is believed to have been the quiet backer of Bo Xilai, the disgraced Chongqing leader who nearly staged an internal party coup.

Xi is doing all this when the Chinese economy is suffering the first pangs of indigestion of his attempts to reform it. But reform it he must, otherwise China's economic growth will slowly wind down and down to a few percentage points. A poorly handled stock market crash, and re-crash, and a general economic slowdown have made him look bad. The parade is a bit of a circus when Xi's credibility on the bread side is under strain.

Xi lauded his country as a major power and a force for world peace as he presided over an extravagant military parade marking the 70th anniversary of Japan's defeat.

Like the Roman circus, however, parades have a limited and transient effect. Though Beijing works hard to make sure they do not forget it, the present generation of Chinese is not overly obsessed with the World War II. Japan may be represented as the great evil, but this year also saw record numbers of Chinese tourists visit Japan. And many Chinese privately speak of their admiration for Japanese politeness, cleanliness and overall discipline. Xi knows the coming year will test him on several fronts, political and economic. Pageantry cannot replace hard-nosed policy.