China's 60th Anniversary Party Isn't to Impress Us

China watchers worldwide have been studying the preparations for China's 60th-anniversary celebration this week, and they have come to something like a consensus analysis: the massive military parade Thursday is meant to showcase a robust military deterrence while simultaneously calming fears about China's rise. And that's the take Chinese authorities themselves are pushing. "A country's military ability is not a threat to anyone, what's important is its military policy," says Gen. Gao Jianguo, executive deputy director of the office of the Orwellian-sounding National Day Military Parade Joint Command. Fifty-six military formations, with 8,000 participants, are slated to be followed by a kinder, gentler civilians' parade of another 180,000 people traveling on floats and by foot.

But the primary audience for this spectacle is not the international press. The real reason for all the pomp and circumstance is to speak directly to the Chinese. And it doesn't require a semiologist to interpret. Beijing's leadership is trying to say something surprisingly simple: "You are safe, because China is strong." The parade's goose-stepping soldiers and unprecedented display of military hardware will undoubtedly look like muscle-flexing triumphalism to many Western observers. Yet the regime's underlying mood is not aggression; it's insecurity.

China's leaders are not determined by direct elections, or even by any institutionalized succession mechanism. As a result, they're constantly trying to shore up their legitimacy at home. That also means they're more likely to worry (at least for now) about winning the confidence of their own citizens—and, more specifically, avoiding accusations from increasingly nationalistic Chinese that they're too weak—than to launch military adventures on foreign soil. There is some truth to the statements by General Gao, who insisted that the display of military might is "not about intimidating China's neighbors."

One of Beijing's biggest and growing concerns is how to adequately protect the interests and assets of Chinese abroad. Beijing's mushrooming role as a global economic player means that more and more Chinese citizens are finding themselves held hostage, caught in the crossfire of conflict zones, or targeted by anti-Chinese unrest in countries where Beijing's mercantilist policies have bred local resentment. For example, last year more than 3,400 Chinese tourists were trapped in Thailand during November's political unrest there; the government had to charter flights to evacuate them. And Chinese cargo vessels have been attacked by Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden—one reason why Beijing took the unusual step of sending a convoy of warships to help conduct antipiracy patrols near Somalia.

Ever since the 1999 NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, in which three Chinese citizens died, the politically charged question posed by hot-headed mainland youth is whether their government can protect Chinese abroad from harm. (The incident triggered destructive anti-Western protests in mainland cities.) "With millions of Chinese overseas, who will provide security for them?" says global-affairs analyst Yan Xuetong at Tsinghua University, asked why China has increased its military budgets in recent years. "When there was a tsunami in Indonesia, we had no way to rescue our people there. We had to ask for help from Australia [to evacuate Chinese citizens]."

These concerns were echoed in recent statements by Vice Foreign Minister Song Tao. He revealed that the annual number of overseas trips by Chinese last year reached more than 45 million—compared to just 280,000 in the three decades between 1949 and 1979. "We are facing a more and more complicated overseas security situation … Deteriorating regional conflicts and turbulence in some countries have directly affected the safety of our citizens and companies abroad," he was quoted as saying by the party mouthpiece People's Daily on Tuesday. "In many non-traditional security accidents, such as terrorist activist, kidnapping and pirate attacks, Chinese citizens are now not only innocent victims but direct targets."

Chinese engineers have been kidnapped in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Yemen. And, in late May, anti-Chinese riots involving tens of thousands of people in Papua New Guinea left four Chinese dead and many Chinese-owned stores looted. The violence was triggered by a brawl between Chinese and Papua New Guinean workers at a nickel refinery being built by China's state-run Metallurgical Construction Corp. Such incidents are likely to intensify as Beijing's relentless hunt for energy and other natural resources deepens its economic involvement in developing countries—especially some African nations where Beijing is developing a rep as a new colonial power.

The question isn't confined to ethnic Chinese in foreign countries, either. Over the past year and a half, ugly race riots have erupted in China's two most restive ethnic-minority areas, Xinjiang and Tibet. Some of the most recent antigovernment protests have been by angry Chinese youth criticizing Beijing for being too "soft" on the Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang and for failing to protect Han Chinese victims of racial violence. Recent problems in Xinjiang have proved so vexing that the government's security campaign for National Day exceeds even measures put in place for the 2008 Olympics. In the past month, Beijing police have arrested more than 6,500 criminal suspects in a stringent crackdown before Oct. 1, a rate that eclipses even the 4,144 perps arrested nationwide during three weeks' worth of security preparations for the August 2008 Beijing Games.

All this explains why Beijing's big show will feature not only the standard phalanxes of soldiers dressed in the standard People's Liberation Army green but also armored vehicles painted in startling shades of deep-water blue (signifying Marines, Navy, and Air Force components). Among the 52 types of indigenous weapons systems slated to go on show are more than 150 aircraft flying in low formation above Changan Boulevard, apparently including AWAC aircraft (with sophisticated radar) and planes capable of midair refueling. (To preempt aerial accidents during the parade, authorities barred citizens form flying kites and model airplanes, and they grounded the city's homing pigeons.)

The parade will also feature Chinese armored personnel carriers and riot trucks painted black or white—colors identified with SWAT units and the People's Armed Police, a paramilitary force used to quell domestic unrest. For the past few days, Beijing's had a sneak preview of rifle-toting SWAT teams—wearing flak jackets and sunglasses—who have parked themselves at key intersections along the main drag leading to Tiananmen Square. After all, the real audience here is the Chinese themselves.

Join the Discussion