BEIJING — Tanks and other military hardware will roll through China’s capital Thursday on a scale larger than what the world saw during the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989.
This time, however, the rollout has nothing to do with crushing domestic protesters. It’s part of a grandiose military parade, organized by China’s Communist Party, to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.
Party officials say the parade is intended to honor the fallen and celebrate the peace of recent decades. But several of China’s neighbors see an ulterior motive. They say Beijing is clearly sending a message about its growing military might in a region that fears what that could mean in the future.
In Taiwan, government leaders are especially wary. Hsia Li-yan, minister of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, notes that China still has more than 1,400 missiles pointed at Taiwan.
“It (the parade) makes Taiwan very uncomfortable with this situation,” Hsia said during an interview last week in Taipei. China’s leaders, he added, “have never denounced the use of force against us.”
The military procession also follows a year of heightened tensions in the South China Sea. There, in disputed waters, Beijing has been building artificial islands and landing strips where several countries, including Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia, have historic claims.
In an interview last week, Taiwan’s democratically elected president, Ma Ying-jeou, said China’s activities have attracted global attention because of their speed and “unimaginable” scale.
Ma, who is nearing the end of eight years in office, noted that other countries are also building artificial islands on partially submerged reefs in the region.
“However, the scale is smaller and they are not moving as fast as mainland China,” said Ma, speaking to reporters from McClatchy, the Los Angeles Times and the Globe and Mail of Canada.
On Thursday, the Beijing parade will feature some 12,000 soldiers marching through Tiananmen Square, with tanks and other armored vehicles rumbling aside them.
On Monday, state media was reporting that Russia and 16 other countries were sending troops to join in the parade, which has the official name of “the 70th anniversary of victory of Chinese people’s resistance against Japanese aggression and World Anti-Fascist War.”
Xi Jinping, China’s president and the Communist Party’s leader, will watch the parade along with leaders of roughly 30 countries friendly to China, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.
As they are cheering, Chinese fighter jets are expected to thunder overhead.
Even by China standards, the Communist Party is taking extraordinary measures to ensure the event isn’t marred by security incidents or regular Beijing realities, such as smothering smog. The government has shut down factories to reduce pollution and has told residents along the parade route not to go on their balconies or take photographs Thursday morning. Both airports in Beijing will be shut down at that time. Skies in Beijing have been abnormally blue for days.
Rana Mitter, a China scholar at Britain’s Oxford University, said the party is investing so much partly for domestic reasons. Chinese leaders and academics have long stated that the nation’s contribution to WWII has been overlooked in history. On Sunday, a top story distributed by China’s Xinhua news service was headlined, “China’s important contribution to WWII victory little known to Europeans.” An estimated 14 million Chinese died in the war against Japan, according to Western and Chinese scholars.
Mitter said the parade also reflects a recognition by the Communist Party that its needs to keep building the social glue of Chinese society.
“China’s economy is still growing, yet there isn’t a strong ideological core holding things together,” said Mitter, author of “Forgotten Ally,” a 2013 book on China’s WWII experience. “The remembrances of the war are being used more and more to create sense of shared national identity.”
Even before the military procession was announced, Chinese state media regularly carried lurid stories about atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers during WWII. Those depictions have increased in recent weeks.
In Taiwan, many agree that wartime Japan committed horrible crimes and that its government has yet to atone for them. Yet some surviving WWII veterans in Taiwan also are annoyed that the mainland’s Communist Party is seeking to portray itself as playing a leading role in the outcome of the war. Most historians agree that the Kuomintang — the Chinese Nationalist Party headed by Chiang Kai-shek — bore the brunt of the fighting against the Japanese. The Nationalists were forced to flee to Taiwan after losing China’s civil war in 1949.
Tao Shin-jun, a 97-year-old veteran, was one of those who retreated to Taiwan after Mao Zedong and the communists came to power. He said the communists mostly sat out WWII, building up their strength so they could defeat the weakened Kuomintang and then rule the entire mainland.
“Now that China is rich and strong, its leaders have started to highlight the eight-year war,” said Tao, interviewed in his family’s apartment in Taipei. “But they are not the ones who fought the Japanese.”
In recent years, the party has allowed Chinese museums and memorials to acknowledge the sacrifices of Kuomintang soldiers. China has invited several of Taiwan’s wartime survivors to join in Thursday’s parade, which has set off a predictable political firestorm in Taiwan. In Taipei, TV talk shows are slamming a decision by former Taiwan Vice President Lien Chan — a retired Nationalist general — to join in the parade.
Lien landed in Beijing Sunday night and was praised by a top Chinese official, Yu Zhengsheng, soon after he arrived. “The majority of Taiwan compatriots breathed together with the motherland and shared the same destiny,” Yu reportedly said to Lien, according to a Xinhua report on Monday. “Their struggle against the Japanese was an invaluable part of the whole Chinese people’s struggle.”
Critics are also venting backlash against U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has agreed to attend, according to Xinhua. Japan’s Foreign Ministry has expressed “strong displeasure” with Ban’s reported decision, with Tokyo seeing the parade as an orchestrated event to stoke anti-Japanese sentiments.
Ban hasn’t issued a statement, but Xinhua quoted him as saying that “China’s contribution and sacrifice during the Second World War is very much recognized.”
Nearly all top Western leaders have either declined to attend the parade or were not invited. President Barack Obama is scheduled to meet with President Xi in Washington in September. But for the upcoming parade, it appears that no high-level U.S. officials will be taking advantage of Beijing’s blue skies.