Why Is China Parading Missiles on TV?

Even by the standards of military parades, Chinese leaders needed something big. They had chosen a name for a national celebration, on Thursday, that necessitated an extravaganza: “The Commemoration of the Seventieth Anniversary of Victory of the Chinese People’s Resistance Against Japanese Aggression and World Anti-Fascist War.” Beijing quantified the arrangements precisely: twelve thousand troops; five hundred weapons’ systems; two hundred aircraft; thirty heads of state or government; a red carpet on Tiananmen Square that was a hundred and twenty-one steps long, one step for each of the years since the first shot was fired in the wars with Japan. Nothing was left to chance: among the extraordinary preparations, the authorities dispatched specially trained monkeys to remove nests that could house birds that might get in the way of the airplanes.

Though the planning began much earlier, the final weeks gave Chinese leaders urgent new reasons for a pageant of strength. The stock markets in Shanghai and Shenzhen were crashing, spooking investors abroad who had chosen to believe that China’s bull run would not succumb to the usual financial rhythms. When Chinese leaders abruptly allowed their currency to drop in value, the concern increased: people in China and abroad wondered what it signalled about the true depth of the economic slowdown that has affected the country. And, finally, in a painful moment that punctuated a summer of disarray, a colossal, lethal explosion at a chemical warehouse in China’s third-largest city, Tianjin, turned out to be the result of a familiar recipe of political corruption. The son of a powerful official had used his connections to ignore rules intended to protect the public.

Seventy years after China emerged from the Second World War, the greatest threat facing the nation’s leadership is not imperialism but skepticism. Chinese Communist Party leaders built their legitimacy on economic performance, and now they must rebuild confidence that they are able to negotiate a more complicated financial and political moment. For years, investors and foreign counterparts believed that, whatever China’s political idiosyncrasies, its mode of grooming and promoting its politicians seemed to be working well enough—the technocrats, after all, had an eloquent record of success. But when the markets fell, some of those technocrats were torn between long-term political imperatives (reform in order to avoid stagnation) and short-term political needs (stop the hemorrhaging before it provokes discontent). The result was incoherent; China’s leaders signalled that they would do all they needed to prevent further losses, but then backed away from that strategy. The market continued to fall, and the believers were seared. A Chinese hedge fund with a somewhat unfortunate name, Shanghai Chaos Investment Co., had doubled down on the market and needed to apologize to its investors: “We made the wrong call with our investment strategy as we overestimated the impact of government rescue efforts,” the company said in a letter on August 31st.

Others have registered their doubts about China’s economy more quietly. Money is leaving the country. China’s foreign-exchange reserves have shrunk by more than three hundred and forty-one billion dollars since reaching a level of nearly four trillion last year. This week, Goldman Sachs economists estimated that the pace of money leaving China may have accelerated to “possibly between $150 billion and $200 billion” since the currency devalued, on August 11th, and state-backed economists (who tend not to speak without evidence to support their claims) are predicting that more is yet to come.

If the economy can only provide a diminishing political dividend, Chinese leaders will encourage their people to feel pride and vigor in other ways. “In defiance of aggression, the unyielding Chinese people fought gallantly and finally won total victory against the Japanese militarist aggressors, thus preserving China’s five-thousand-year-old civilization and upholding the cause of peace of mankind,” President Xi Jinping told the crowd on Thursday. “This remarkable feat made by the Chinese nation was rare in the history of war.”

In his ten-minute speech, Xi used the word “peace” seventeen times. Then he ushered in the arms, which rumbled down the Avenue of Eternal Peace in camouflage formations. “Here comes the second formation of nuclear missiles,” the announcer on state television’s English-language broadcast said. “It is a shield in the defense of national sovereignty and national dignity.” Of all the nuclear and conventional weapons on display, American military analysts were perhaps most interested to get their first glimpse of the DF-21D missile, the “carrier killer,” and to hear the announcer say that an even more advanced anti-ship missile has been deployed: the DF-26, which is capable of reaching Guam. At times, it was clear that the organizers suspected that their message needed some explication for viewers abroad. An announcer said, “China wants to tell the world that the purpose of the parade is to remember those martyrs, and cherish peace, and create the future.” Put another way, nuclear fences make good neighbors.

But from the organizers’ perspective, the world was a secondary audience. The goal was to rally support and pride at home, and in that respect it was a great success. Those following on social media appeared to be thrilled; even snarky college students took a moment to marvel at how far China has come in building a national defense that could prevent the country from being brutalized as it was in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. At the end of the parade, seventy thousand doves fluttered past the missiles, up into the Beijing sky.

Chinese leaders aren’t foolish, and know that the outside world will be slightly spooked by the display. But, for the moment, there are more pressing matters: keeping their own people onside at a moment of acute economic distress. The historian John Delury, who is based in Seoul, observed, “If only citizens marched and saluted like soldiers, thinks the king to himself. If only society could be arrayed in perfect rows and matching colors. If only the stock market would rise steadily like a flock of a thousand pigeons.” For a little more than an hour, the parade gave Chinese leaders a more manageable domain.

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