Last week's V-Day anniversary parade was a shock-and-awe display of China’s military power, featuring over 12,000 troops, 200 types of aircraft, and 500 pieces of military hardware. Yet Xi Jinping’s speech sang a different tune. Xi Jinping stated that “War is the sword of Damocles that still hangs over mankind... We must learn the lessons of history and dedicate ourselves to peace.” Xi Jinping closed with the surprising declaration that China would cut 300,000 soldiers from its armed forces population of over 2 million soldiers. That the V-Day anniversary parade was meant to send a clear signal of strength and unity towards not just an international community (in particular, Japan and the United States), but also the domestic population is unmistakable. This article will focus on the implications of two key aspects of the V Day parade: its historical revisionism and the proposed military scaleback.
The festivities followed the state agenda, with the problematic issues that might incur international scrutiny swept under the rug. The sky for the parade remained blue (sarcastically dubbed by netizens as ‘Anti-Fascist Blue’) despite mounting evidence that Beijing’s air pollution has only worsened in the past few years. The recent Tianjin explosion, the recent crackdown on human rights lawyers and government officials, and the recent stock market crash were all ignored in lieu of an edited historical narrative about a decades-old military victory.
What was that historical narrative? The Ministry of National Defense’s website claims that “CCP-led forces pinned down 60 percent of the invading Japanese army” during the second World War. State-sanctioned media such as Xinhua have diminished Nationalist participation in the war, arguing that the People's Liberation Army was the first to resist Japanese occupation in 1931 and further arguing that the People's Liberation Army's efforts were the deciding factor in attaining victory. The Ministry of National Defense's press release even cites Mao's 1938 'On Protracted War' speech, mistaking Mao's prescriptive call for communist resistance with objective historical evidence that communist resistance was central to the war at large. Within popular culture, the same narrative permeates, with this movie poster causing domestic uproar by replacing Chiang Kai-Shek with Mao at the Cairo Conference of 1943. This revisionist interpretation of the second Sino-Japanese War does not merely reflect national amnesia. It also legitimates the CCP's 1950's-1960's neglect and persecution of Kuomintang veterans. Kuomintang veterans received minimal veterans benefits . Even worse, 91-year-old Kuomintang veteran Lu Chunshan recalled in an interview being 'dragged before baying crowds during political campaigns in the 1950s and 1960s and denounced as an enemy of the Communist cause.' Lu survived being beaten by Red Guards, but two fellow veterans did not. By continuing this narrative, the CCP can deny reparations to formerly persecuted Kuomintang veterans while consolidating nationalistic sentiment towards itself.
A short study of the numbers of soldiers involved in Japanese resistance, as published last week by the Laogai Research Foundation, defies this revisionist interpretation. Historical consensus acknowledges contributions made by both the Kuomintang and the Communist troops, although the Communist troops overwhelmingly made contributions in the rear. Moreover, Chiang Kai-shek's 14 million soldiers received support from over 3 million American soldiers in the Pacific Theater and over $200 million in aid through the American Lend-Lease Act. This American support has largely been ignored in the CCP narrative.
Some recent developments indicate grassroots pushback against this historical re-write. For example, both Chinese comics and online videogames have familiarized millions of young players with the Kuomintang's generals, battles, and victories during World War II. Even the party line has begun to accommodate greater historical accuracy; state-run tributes and memorials are carefully phrased to acknowledge the 'Chinese' war effort rather than the 'Communist' war effort. Additionally, last week's parade was the first Chinese V Day celebration in which Kuomintang veterans marched alongside Communist veterans. This reconciliation was applauded by some as an attempt to correct past erasures. Others viewed it as a gesture towards pulling Taiwan back into the Chinese government, a fear that was only further reinforced by a recent video stimulating a Chinese military takeover of an island similar to Taiwan.
Apart from diminishing Nationalist participation in the war, the party-sanctioned narrative emphasized Japanese atrocities under occupation. The official government-run online memorial includes reports of Japanese soldiers admitting to corpse mutilation, burning and murdering civilians (including "crying infants"), raping women, and testing bacteria and poison gas on Chinese civilians, among various other atrocities. It is indisputable that Chinese civilians suffered some of the most severe wartime atrocities in World War II. After all, of the Allied Powers, China suffered the most civilian casualties due to military activity and crimes against humanity. The distribution and proliferation of such wartime atrocity reports by Chinese party mouthpieces, however, implies that the historical narrative has been employed in order to reinforce associations of the Chinese as victimized people, rather than aggressors.
At the same time, the narrative reinforces associations of the Japanese as aggressors and violators of international protocol. One Chinese Foreign Ministry official responded to Japanese complaints about the parade by suggesting that "[Japanese politicians] read the United Nations Charter carefully, to face up to and reflect upon their country's history of aggression and work to win trust from neighboring countries and the international community." An internal irony exists in the fact that a Chinese official, from a country that frequently claims exceptionalism to "Western" ideals of human rights as set forth by the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, might ask another non-Western country to follow United Nations protocol. The CCP attempt to represent China as a peaceful nonaggressor defending only when attacked then dovetailed with Xi Jinping's declaration of military scaleback.
Proposed Military Scaleback
Xi Jinping's announcement that China would never wage war on another country in the midst of a smorgasbord of military machinery on parade appeared, in a word, jarring. The proposed scaleback of cutting 300,000 soldiers from its 2-million-strong armed forces (an approximately 15% troop reduction) has since been confirmed by various state-sanctioned mouthpieces. The supposed purpose of the announcement, according to the Ministry of Natonal Defense's press release, is to "fully show China's sincerity to join hands with the rest of the world to maintain peace."
Yet China watchers both domestic and foreign have expressed skepticism of this peaceful purpose. The Phillippine defense department issued a statement saying China should drop "deceitful rhetoric" in claiming peace while it attempts to expand in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, Chinese ships have been spotted in the Bering Sea, coming the closest to United States territory than ever before. At the same time, the on-going Chinese dispute with Japan over the Senkaku Islands continues to sour relations between the two countries (this dispute explains some of the CCP's eagerness to malign the Japanese as aggressors).
Furthermore, others have observed that this military scaleback will allow the Xi Jinping to further consolidate his power: first, by continuing the Xi's anti-corruption campaign that some have observed is a power move to "weed out the elements in the military that are closely associated with Xi's predecessor Jiang Zemin." Second, it allows Xi to restructure the military and in fact accelerate modernization of the military. The Chinese military can cut down on its exorbitant personnel budget in order to direct resources towards better technology. The Chinese government's increased investment in hiring hackers suggests a new emerging battlefield that would not necessitate more soldiers to physically fight wars.
Such on-going observations are correct in noticing a discrepancy between Xi Jinping's words and Chinese power moves on an international level. Yet the dialogue should also shift to the discrepancy between Xi Jinping's announcement of peace and harmony in the light of state-sanctioned force used against Chinese civilians at the domestic level.
The June crackdown on over 200 human rights lawyers and their associates was condemned by non-governmental organizations and United States government commissions alike as a large step backwards for the advancement of Chinese human rights. The People's Armed Police (PAP) of China was established in 1982 by branching off from the People's Liberation Army and units of the Ministry of Public Security. Since then, the PAP continues to be a gendarmarie, or military police force, with its policemen granted significant discretion in arresting, interrogating, and torturing potential dissidents. The recent amendments to the Criminal Law will only expand police powers by letting authorities broadly define what constitutes "insulting, threatening, or disruptive speech" in court, "disruptions to social order", and "terrorism." Rule of law subsequently takes a backseat to the CCP's need to maintain supremacy and cohesion.
Additionally, the PAP is estimated to comprise anywhere between 660,000 policemen (according to government statistics) to 1.5 million policemen (according to non-governmental watchdogs). China's police force, the largest in the world, is certainly commensurate with China's large population. Yet the fact that its police force is almost as large as its standing military demonstrates where the CCP prioritizes its use of force: against Chinese civilians, in the name of maintaining order. Xi Jinping mentioned that the Chinese government had no plans for hegemonic expansion, but he did not mention that the Chinese government would stop detaining activists, political dissidents, journalists, and lawyers. Xi Jinping's speech about peace is disingenuous so long as his regime and its police apparatus continue to enforce violence on civilians. Dialogue surrounding Xi's speech should thus focus on this omission to point out the need for peace not just between countries but also between governments and their own civilians.
Last week's V Day parade was a spectacular display. But the most surprising aspect of the parade was what was not shown, what was deliberately left out of the state-issued agenda. What Tiananmen Massacre? Tanks were rolling triumphantly through Tiananmen Square once again. What pollution? The sky was an unerring clear blue. What internal divisions? Hundreds of volunteers and soldiers marched, with observers surprised by how uniform the heights of each marcher was. What economic crisis? The government spared no expense in lavishly welcoming state leaders. As Susan Shirk, former Clinton Secretary of State observed, "It was all about World War II, but it was also not about World War II at all." Or as professor of East Asian studies John Delury notes, "A military parade is a display not only of state power, but also of social order."
The V Day parade was an enactment of Xi Jinping's power. It was also a strategic presentation, with Xi Jinping's historical revisionism to bolster his claims of Chinese peace. Yet one must wonder, what kind of peace is Xi's police apparatus enforcing on dissidents such as Wang Yu and Zhao Guangjun, Yao Lifa and Zhang Cai, Pu Zhiqiang and Shen Liangqing? Is this what the Chinese government would call peace, then, that eerie radio silence that follows after all activists, political dissidents, and lawyers have been placed behind bars?