By Geoff Raby
In brilliant sunshine under clean cobalt skies, President Xi Jinping took the salute from 12,000 goose-stepping troops and applauded the passing columns of tanks, nuclear missiles, newly minted drones, and mobile rocket batteries. The display of brute military power concluded with a flyover of helicopters in formation making the number 70, jets of various types, reconnaissance planes, and even a tanker refuelling a jet as it flew along Chang'An Avenue.
This is the ironically named Avenue of Heavenly Peace, along which the tanks rolled 26 years ago to smash hopes for a more tolerant, inclusive and less-corrupt political system.
President Xi, standing alone, remote, above the Heavenly Gate at the same spot where Chairman Mao stood to proclaim the founding of the People's Republic on October 1, 1949, has travelled a great distance in the three years he has been at the helm of China's political system.
Three years ago, he began his term by projecting a warm, man-of-the-people imagine. In repeated staged appearances, he was seen holding his own umbrella, buying dumplings at a store in a popular street for Chinese tourists to the capital, admonishing Communist Party officials for disrupting the lives of Beijing's good citizens by blocking roads for official motorcades, and for adding to the city's impossible traffic congestion by lavishing government vehicles on even middle-level officials. Xi's spinners for a time were promoting him as a warm cuddly "uncle", an affectionate title in China.
Then it seemed Xi understood that the Andropov-like years under the cold, ultra-cautious leadership of Hu Jintao, with its flagrant corruption, had alienated swathes of the population from the Communist Party. Partly for political survival and partly for feelings of filial piety to his famous revolutionary father, Xi has set about busily trying to rebuild the authority and legitimacy of the party.
War without end
Xi chose a war on corruption within the party and state to do this. But this has turned into a war without end, because the enemies he has created threaten his own survival. Xi must prevail at every turn or be vanquished. Such are the stakes in a one-party, increasingly authoritarian political system. Indeed, the growing authoritarianism is itself a barometer of the rising tension within the system.
The military parade itself is unusual. This is the first Victory Over Japan parade in the 70 years since the end of the war with Japan. Over the past three decades, it has become common practice to hold a military parade every 10 years to mark the founding of the People's Republic of China. Since it has become customary for Chinese leaders to serve 10-year terms (two five-year terms consecutively), each party general secretary had one parade that also served to mark their term. The content of the parade, however, apart from a bit more equipment, was pretty much the same as the 60th anniversary in 2009.
With this parade, however, Xi has shown, in a very deliberate way, that he is not going to be bound by convention. His holding of the 70th parade sends a decisive message – Xi has his own way of doing things.
What then of other conventions that have evolved over the past 39 years since the return of Deng Xiaoping and the quelling of the turmoil of Mao's Cultural Revolution? In a one-party state there can be no rule of law, because there is no authority above the Communist Party.
The conventions of the past three decades are then extremely important for the stability of the system. At one level the vastly expensive and extravagant military parade can be seen as relatively trivial. But in such a system as China's, an event on this scale without precedent is extremely significant in terms of domestic politics.
Could it be that Xi is already indicating that he no longer feels bound by the conventions of two five-year terms, with the assumption of his stepping down in 2022? Xi has gathered into his hands more power than any Chinese leader in the post-1949 period other than Mao. He has effectively set aside the system of collective leadership. And even though his predecessors were on the podium (had they not been, that would have been the only story around the parade), they were given scant attention and no longer balance the leader, as occurred with previous generations of leadership.
Inevitably these events have multiple audiences, the more so the more closed the political system. For locals, it was to beat the nationalism drum. The spectacular show seems to have sent a frisson of nationalism across Beijing as locals momentarily forgave the disruption and cost, but the cynicism is returning as people ask why was this necessary? Indeed, one of the great ironies of this celebration of China's victory over Japan was that Chinese tourist visits to Japan skyrocketed as cashed-up Chinese took advantage of the three-day holiday and the cheap yen to go shopping in Tokyo.
Internationally, however, the parade laid bare the fault lines in the contemporary world system. No matter how much China's state-controlled media tried to spin it, the absence of leaders from the democracies – except South Korea – and with the Russian President being the most significant guest, was a diplomatic embarrassment for President Xi. This will not be lost on the citizens of Beijing.
Xi will need luck to steer the economy through significant structural reform, while retaining sufficiently high rates of growth to keep popular support behind the party/state, while his disregard of convention will raise more questions about his longer-term intentions. High, goose-stepping nationalism will not be enough to keep the people on side and assuage concerns about his personal ambitions to hold on to power.
Geoff Raby is Chairman and CEO of Geoff Raby & Associates and a former Australian Ambassador to China.
This article first appeared in the Australian Financial Review: