The 9.3 Beijing V-Day Parade — a Chinese perspective

My name is Yinuo Li. I grew up in China, got my PhD in Molecular Biology in the US and worked for 10 years at McKinsy & Company, both in the US and China. In May 2015 I left McKinsey as a partner and became Director for the China Program for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Starting week 6 of my tenure at the foundation, I’ve been sending a biweekly email to foundation colleagues, titled “Get Smart on China”. I wanted to introduce a perspective on China from a common Chinese’s point of view. These notes do not represent the Foundation’s view in anyway. They have been surprisingly popular among my colleagues, with many sharing back their thoughts with me and forwarding the notes to their friends.

The note below was written yesterday, after I watched the live broadcast of the Victory Day Parade in Beijing, saw the sentiment on social media in China and then read the starkly contrasting coverage of mainstream western media like CNN and NY Times.

Dear all:

This is not a planned issue, but given today is a special day in China, I typed up this note last night.

9.3 is a holiday in China this year, with a big Victory Day Parade in Beijing (took place last night PST) in celebration of the 70th anniversary of victory in World War II, and for China, the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression.

On Sep 2nd 1945, China accepted the Japanese surrender, after 14 years of devastating war, which started with Japan’s invasion of the northeast provinces of China in 1931. The government then decided that the following day, 9.3, would be a national holiday to celebrate this hard-earned victory.

Before the parade today, there were concerns in the western media around China’s intention to show off its military might. I will not go into a debate on this (although notably Xi did make a major announcement at the beginning of the parade that China would cut its military force by 300K people, the largest cut since the 1997 cut of 500K) but wanted to share my view and reflections as a common Chinese person.

On WeChat (the largest social media platform in China), postings regarding this parade are overwhelmingly positive, including postings from my own “friend circle”, many of them in the US. People invited to view the parade live come from all walks of life. At least 3 people I know were invited to go; one is a close friend of mine a professor in a leading university in China, one is a mid-level government official (who is also a mother and a novelist in her spare time), and one is a returnee scientist who currently heads R&D in a local pharma company.

The emotion behind this positivity is not for the “show” itself, rather a memory of history and the long way China has come in these 70 years. As I wrote in an earlier issue, the ~ 100 years of history in China following the 1840 Opium War has been an endless stretch of darkness — invasion, defeat, failure and humiliation. Troops from multiple countries came and invaded, looted, and colonized. This stretch culminated with the Japanese invasion from 1931–1945, during which time there were 35 million casualties in China, accounting for 1/3 of the world’s total casualties during WWII. China also faced 2/3 of the armed forces of Japan, making a major contribution to the allied victory in WWII. The 1945 victory was China’s first in a stretch of 105 years.

In contrast to how people may have experienced WWII in the US, having an invasion at home feels rather different. The Japanese army was also notorious for its brutality. My grandmother was born in 1923 in Shandong province in northern China. In 1941 the Japanese army started to implement the “3 completelys” policy in northern China, namely “kill completely, burn completely and loot completely”, wiping many villages down to the ground. She saw her own aunt, who was in her 50s then, raped by 10+ Japanese soldiers and her cousin killed by them with bayonets (“there were more than 20 holes in his body when we got it back”). My grandfather had many of such stories himself, one I remember vividly is his account of how the villagers hid in a cave when the troops came; fearing the Japanese may find them, the mothers covered the crying babies’ mouth so tight that they suffocated them to death.

With suffering and memories like these, it’s not hard to understand the ecstasy people enjoyed in 1945 when the victory came. “We took cotton out of our quilts, our cotton jackets, anything we could find, to make torches, lit it and danced all night with tears. We couldn’t believe those many years of darkness were over” said a 93 year old lady during a TV interview, remembering this day 70 years ago.

The parade itself started with a salute to veterans of the war. Some of them were able to come, all in their 90s or older. My mother was watching this with me and said, with tears in her eyes, “how happy your grandfather would be if he could see this.” My grandfather was born in 1914 and fought in the Japanese war. He passed away in 2009. Some say the reason China has made the 70th anniversary a big one is that if we were to wait another 10 years, it is likely all these people would have died. Having people with living memories taking part in this celebration is definitely profound.

China has come a long way. Xi said in his speech (full text here) that “War is like a mirror; looking at it helps us better appreciate the value of peace. Today peace and development have become the prevailing trend.. we must learn the lessons of history and dedicate ourselves to peace… In the interests of peace, we need to foster a keen sense of global community with a shared future. Prejudice, discrimination, hatred and war can only cause disaster and suffering, while mutual respect, equality, peaceful development and common prosperity represent the right path to take”. These statements resonate with many Chinese.

Many of the postings on social media in China are people sharing old pictures and stories of their grandparents, reflecting how much the country had changed from a place of despair and devastation to independence and prosperity. This sentiment is quite a contrast to what’s on the western media, most of which took a distant and detached observer role in their coverage. They all seem to be busy coming up with smart opinions and judgments of this event, as a habitual behavior when it comes any topics related to China, with a lack of empathy and little effort of even trying to understand the historical context for this event.

On a personal level, I also found something profound in the 3 generations of my own family: from my grandparents, who lived through war and poverty and a time when “death was an everyday thing” (my grandma had 14 siblings; only 3 lived to adulthood), to my parents, who lived through the famine in the 60s and the dark “cultural revolution” of the 70s, to me, sitting here now, with the best technology at my fingertips, writing a note like this to you all.

If you made this far, here you can see how Beijingers catch view of the V-day parade.

And here is a 2 min YouTube video highlight of the parade.

Yinuo


Originally published at mp.weixin.qq.com.