By Yifu Dong, BR ’17
China has a ritual of putting on military parades. In this article, Yifu points out that they exist more for symbolism than military might.
今年的9月3日是反法西斯战争胜利70周年纪念日。当日于天安门广场上举行的阅兵仪式让很多中国人激动不已，同时也令不少外国的旁观者不寒而栗。当今的世界比起过去要和平很多，但如果一个国家的军队不断地耀武扬威 — — 阅兵也好扩军也罢 — — 的确会让其它国家感到不安。
相比于阅兵，更让人担心的恐怕应该是中国互联网上铺天盖地的战争宣传，甚至战争叫嚣 — — 对越南、菲律宾等邻国开战的“狠话”充斥着网络。这种宣传不仅扭曲客观事实和历史真相，还会使公众支持不必要的战争。
Nothing conveys better the message of peace than tanks and nukes on Tiananmen Square.
This September, in a celebration of peace — the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II — the mandarins in Beijing put on an outlandish display of strength before the nervously watchful eyes of the world. Our world today is more peaceful than ever before, according to academics such as psychologist Steven Pinker, but there are still plenty of reasons to worry about regimes that take pride in such a blatant hint of violence.
However, for now China might be an exception, for the military parade is but a ritual.
When the Communists first took over following the loss of twenty million Chinese in World War II and by means of a bloody civil war that killed another six million, they organized eleven straight National Day parades from 1949 to 1959 under the leadership of Mao Zedong. For the Communists, the military was a priority; the “New China” was to not only defend itself but also fight battles on nearly all sides of her borders during Communist rule. Soldiers on horseback and policemen in motorcycles as well as tanks and planes all marched in the early parades. Even the famine caused by the 1958–1961 Great Leap Forward, which resulted in 30 to 45 million deaths, could not stop the regime from celebrating its “achievements” with military parades in 1958 and 1959.
The next parade after 1959 happened in 1984 after two decades of political upheaval that devastated the country. Even though Mao died in 1976, now the more economically liberal-minded Communists still believed in his unassailable conclusion that “regimes are made from gun barrels.”
Later, it was precisely gun barrels that helped the Chinese Communists avoid the fate of their Soviet and Eastern European comrades. But as China grew increasingly isolated ideologically, the subsequent military parades in 1999, 2009 and 2015 started to take on a nationalist flavor.
Of course, Communists, by definition, are never supposed to be nationalist, for its creed calls for internationalism and “dictatorship of the proletariat,” however seriously the Communists take those concepts today. However, nationalism is a useful tool that diverts people’s attention from substantial concerns at home. The military parade is the right fuel for nationalism.
This nationalism depends not just on the incitement of fear and hatred against foreign enemies such as Japan and the United States, but also on the display of strength. Once nationalism is ignited, the showcase of military might has to continue, or else nationalism will wane. Therefore, although recent muscle flexing by China, such as building an aircraft carrier and constructing islands in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, provokes worries internationally, it is no more than a ritual tactic aimed at inspiring nationalism at home.
Compared to military parades, more alarming to the outside world should be China’s constantly replenished doses of online nationalistic propaganda, written by irresponsible writers with the acquiescence of the authorities, who happily distort historical truth, manipulate facts and openly call for aggression against countries such as Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam.
But China is not likely to engage in openly aggressive acts against a neighboring country as long as nationalism keeps afloat the legitimacy of the Communists, for Chinese regimes throughout history have kept up a ritual of pacifying the population and exploiting the riches of the country at the same time.
In other words, as long as tanks and nukes regularly appear on Tiananmen Square, and as long as most Chinese people heartily cheer for military parades like they always do, the world does not yet need to fear the unleashing of China’s pent-up military power.