They were not there to brag. But when three Chinese military officials laid out plans Tuesday for China’s super-sized 70th anniversary parade to be held next week, they couldn’t help sounding a teensy bit smug.
There will be more generals, more planes, more Chinese-made rockets and advanced military equipment showcasing Chinese know-how than ever before – 580 pieces of equipment, to be exact.
There will be the usual planes in formation with colorful contrails, and not-so-usual helicopters forming a giant number 70, brightly hued flags representing the revolutionary spirit of Chinese military martyrs, and 15,000 military personnel all in top shape physically, morally and of course politically, each man at least 5 feet 9 but not more than 6 feet 1.
And for the first time, there will even be two Chinese female generals marching in step. In short, it will be the biggest Chinese military parade ever held.
“We believe you will not be disappointed,” said Maj. Gen. Tan Min, deputy chief of staff of the Central Theater Command of the People’s Liberation Army, unable to suppress a proud smile.
With 160 fighters, bombers and military planes, Tuesday’s parade will be grander than the one that marked the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, when just 17 planes could be found and China’s first premier, Zhou Enlai, ordered that the planes fly over twice.
The parade has a serious objective, not only to project China’s might as a rising military power, but also to project Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power within the Communist Party, 18 months after he ushered in a move to remove presidential term limits that means he can rule for life.
The parade aims to drum up a sense of unity, energy and political purpose at a time when China faces multiple domestic and global challenges: a slowing economy, the trade war, a multi-pronged U.S. attack on its champion tech giant Huawei, a political crisis in Hong Kong, criticisms over its detention of more than a million members of the Uighur Muslim minority in the western region of Xinjiang and pushback from many countries against Chinese influence operations.
One of the most serious domestic problems is soaring pork prices, seen by Communist officials as highly sensitive because it is a key part of China’s diet. It was caused by an African swine fever epidemic that has swept the nation and wiped out millions of hogs.
Maj. Gen. Cai Zhijun said the parade will be “stately” and “solemn.” More than 50 patriotic songs will be performed by a military orchestra of thousands.
“The message is to uphold the absolute command of the party and to show unwavering loyalty and willingness to defend the leadership,” he said.
China’s military and Beijing authorities have been in feverish preparation for weeks. The internet, often unreliable, has slowed to a trickle, constantly dropping in and out. On Saturday, the city was in virtual lockdown, with the city center blocked off and subways bypassing stations to make way for a full dress rehearsal with tanks, soldiers, planes in formation with red, blue and yellow contrails, and helicopters – the third city-stopping rehearsal so far.
Traffic was gridlocked. People were stranded. A modern dance performance planned months ago was ordered canceled – although officials relented at the last minute.
The entire fireworks display was set off late Sunday, in a practice run. Flags and red lanterns have been put up all over the city and intricate artwork depicting scenes such as galloping horses and camels have been constructed of colorful flowers and plants.
This obsession with perfection may well produce a dazzling parade, but it has put out some Beijingers, notably Hu Xijin, the editor of the Communist Party-owned Global Times, one of China’s best known tweeters, although Twitter, Facebook and other Western social media and media sites are banned under China’s strict censorship laws. Those who access such sites usually use a virtual private network, illegal in China – but most Chinese see only what censors allow.
Hu, who usually tweets about inside gossip on the trade war or how China’s leaders are losing patience with Hong Kong pro-democracy protests, was obviously fed up last week, when he vented about his trouble getting access to foreign websites.
“The Chinese national holiday is approaching and accessing foreign websites has become extremely difficult,” he complained on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, forgetting that most Chinese can never access them. “It even affected the Global Times’ daily work. In my opinion, such action is a bit too much. I hereby make a suggestion and hope it will be heard,” he wrote Sep. 18, calling on authorities to “trust the masses” and allow more access to foreign websites. He must have thought better of it. The post was swiftly deleted.
The generals on Tuesday described logistical arrangements and rehearsals in detail. For example, food for soldiers taking part in the parade is being scrupulously tested three times a day to make sure it is safe, and there are boot-cleaning stations to ensure a mirror shine on marching boots.
They march up and down for many hours, sometimes all night – as do the civilians who are rehearsing flag-waving performances.
Some 60,000 civilians will take part and the total number involved in the parade is 100,000, according to the Global Times. People have been practicing since July. One participant told the newspaper that he had recently been practicing all night.
The paper answered one delicate question, the subject of much gossip and speculation but rarely aired in the media: What do all those participants do when they, er, have a call of nature?
“Practices are certainly very tiring as they often take place at midnight. It takes a lot of time and stamina. The organizers even give us adult diapers because we do not have time to go to the toilet during practice,” said the man, who will carry a flag beside a decorated float.
Members of Hong Kong’s police force, criticized by international rights groups for its use of violence against protesters in recent demonstrations, have been invited to participate.
One secret is whether the Dongfang-41, the world’s longest range ICBM, capable of traveling more than 9,000 miles, will be shown off.
All the militaristic pomp is not a sign that China is a global threat, said Senior Col. Wu Qian, spokesman for the Ministry of National Defense of the People’s Republic of China.
“It seems that there are always some people who are playing this issue up, where there’s no issue. They would say when we show our weapons to the public that we are flexing our muscles but if we don’t show our weapons they will say we’re not being transparent.”