It’s a beautiful Thursday in Beijing, one of those rare days where the splendor of the outdoors can actually match that of any other beloved city of the world. It’s in the freshness of the air, in the warmth of the sun, and even in the joviality of everyone on the street.
People are lining my street outside, excited. Neighbors, bumping into each other, chat happily. Elderly people are lounging on stools and old chairs. Nearly everyone has sought shade under trees or patio umbrellas brought out in the past couple of weeks for the “safety volunteers,” citizen brigades tasked to keep watch.
The atmosphere today is in stark contrast to just the evening before, with offices and shops closing abruptly and workers frantically rushing home before the buses stopped running. As I biked home, the roads felt eerily empty, prepped for closure and cleared of the usual parked cars and congested traffic.
Today is Parade Day.
Boyfriend left for work early this morning, earlier than usual. While today has been declared a national holiday, he will be working until late tonight. That’s the importance of the parade.
I watched the parade via a VPN-enabled FaceTime call with my sister, who was visiting my parents, who have CCTV. I didn’t intend to watch it, but the parade had become some kind of omnipresent beast that was impossible to escape. It was also taking place along a street that is literally two giant blocks from me.
Despite finding the whole parade concept incredibly tacky, I couldn’t help being taken in by the awesome precision, coordination and number of soldiers marching. And the excitement of my neighbors was contagious. I went outside to see if I could spot the planes flying overhead (yes!).
Military parades, especially ones that roll out some major weapons from the arsenal, must appear quite unusual to Westerners today — even Americans, who spend more on defense than the next seven countries (including China) combined and who have an unhealthy pride in their military achievements. They are, to us, a spectacle bordering on histrionics, a bombastic display of bravado that, in a post-WWII era, is reminiscent of the nationalistic and aggressive dictatorships we fought. It is hard not to see China as being antagonistic, despite its repeated assurances that the parade — and the Chinese — was all for peace.
To understand how a military parade can be a display of a country’s desire for peace requires the application of Chinese logic. That, or a ruthlessly realist outlook on geopolitics. China’s definition of peace is a world that goes about its own business, too afraid to mess with it.
But my dad said something while we were admiring the synchronization of the goose-stepping brigades: A marching army, perfectly in sync, is more than just about looks. To have hundreds of men concentrating on a single task, which is to march in lockstep, because one man said so, is to have complete control — that is power.
To hang banners and posters all around the city, even replacing the ads of perennial bus stop advertisers H&M and Apple with 70th Anniversary posters — that is power.
To close hundreds of factories and leave thousands of workers idling for a whole month — that is power.
To basically shut down a city of 20 million for the sake of a three-hour event — that is undeniably power.
Look at my power, Xi Jinping is saying. I have nukes.
But who is he talking to? Foreign countries — especially Japan — have certainly gotten the message. But then there is that whole peace talk, so no one is really sure what to believe.
The military itself might be the real answer. Xi’s anti-corruption campaign had brought down two of the PLA’s top-ranking generals, among dozens of other generals. The parade was an exercise for the remaining generals to salute Xi as he stood atop Tian’anmen so that he could assert his control over the bloated institution. In this respect, the parade was really to rally the military around Xi, and the people around the military.
Indeed, the people are rallying. The parade has given them a chance to marvel at how far their country has come since they were so weakened by foreign powers that Japan — Japan! — invaded and ravaged their country. It was a chance for them to share their family’s war-time stories and a chance to thank their veteran heroes. That is why everyone on the street, usually so stoic and neutral, was so happy today, despite their street being closed down and under heavy surveillance.
It was, in all fairness, a great day for the country. Still, as I watched all the different types of tanks that I just saw on TV rolling down my street, in an encore performance for the everyman, I couldn’t help but think of the irony. A parade ostensibly meant to commemorate peace and victory over anti-fascism, but proudly displaying the destructive weapons of war. People lauding the show of power, without realizing it is the same power that has placed so many limits on them. The soldiers, peaking out from the turrets, didn’t even smile or wave.