Military Exercises on Tiananmen Meant to Show Party Leader’s Control

September 2, 2015 11:41 pm Last Updated: September 6, 2015 4:41 pm

The Chinese Communist Party held one of its largest ever military parades on Sept. 3: With over 10,000 troops, 27 tank and armored vehicle formations, 10 aircraft formations, and a formidable display of China’s latest weaponry. Before it was held, the event was rattling nerves in the region.

Ostensibly, the parade was meant to celebrate the 70th anniversary of China’s defeat of Japan in the second world war.

But analysts of elite Chinese politics said there is a more compelling explanation for the event, and it doesn’t involve external enemies.

The troop review is an oath of loyalty. It’s the soldiers and officers of the three forces pledging their incomparable loyalty and staunch support to Party Central and Chairman Xi.
— Wang Jian, deputy commander

Instead of marking the defeat of Japan 70 years ago, the bombast and fanfare can best be understood as an occasion for Party leader Xi Jinping to demonstrate to his rivals in the Party that he now has complete grasp over military authority—the ultimate jewel in the crown for a Chinese communist ruler, following Chairman Mao’s dictum that power grows from the barrel of a gun.

“As long as he controls the army, he controls everything,” said Cheng Xiaonong, an independent scholar of China’s politics and economy, based in New Jersey.

“The basic purpose is to show that Xi Jinping is eager to declare his total control,” Cheng said in a telephone interview.

An Unusual Occasion

Almost everyone agrees that the event is unique: large-scale military parades of this sort have until now been reserved for each 10-year anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Each former Party leader has held such an event: Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao.

Chinese missiles are paraded on trucks near Tiananmen Square during a military parade in Beijing on Sept. 3, 2015. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
Chinese missiles are paraded on trucks near Tiananmen Square during a military parade in Beijing on Sept. 3. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Typically, the leader impassively observes the minutely-choreographed troop procession from the Tiananmen rostrum, makes a speech intended for the Party corps and the masses, and then rides in a large black car viewing the assembled troops with his torso protruding from the sunroof. Many Chinese commentators and Internet users have already taken the opportunity to draw attention to and mock what they consider to be the anachronistic, fascist aesthetics of the exercise.

But according to the regular schedule, Party chief Xi Jinping would have to wait until 2019, the 70th anniversary of the founding of PRC, to do that.

The Party thus declared Sept. 3 a new national holiday, and arranged the enormous display of military might.

There would be no way such an initiative would make it past the Central Military Commission, the Party organ that controls the armed forces, if Xi Jinping did not already have supreme control, according to Chen Pokong, an author who has written books about Chinese political culture.

“If it was Hu Jintao, the vice chairman of the commission were under Jiang Zemin’s power,” and Hu wouldn’t have been able to pull off such a stunt, he said.

Since taking power in late 2012, Xi Jinping has put his energies into an anti-corruption campaign that has targeted these officials, among many others associated with the former political dynasty of Jiang Zemin. In particular, among the highest level scalps in that campaign are the two former vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong. Both of these men were known Jiang loyalists.

“This parade is not a routine event. It’s a surprise, a special, it’s unusual,” Chen said. “It’s clear from this that Xi now controls the military.”

Loyalty to the Leader

Several analysts pointed to the same article in People’s Daily, which they identified as one of the starkest expressions of the political logic of the event.

Wang Jian, the deputy commander of the military review, wrote, “The troop review is an oath of loyalty. It’s the soldiers and officers of the three forces pledging their incomparable loyalty and staunch support to Party Central and Chairman Xi.”

Chinese soldiers ride in tanks as they pass in front of Tiananmen Square during a military parade in Beijing on Sept. 3, 2015. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
Chinese tanks as they pass in front of Tiananmen Square during a military parade in Beijing on Sept. 3, 2015. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

That point was driven home by Xi in arranging a formation composed of generals in the military, marching in lockstep in Tiananmen Square past Xi. “They have to march, and turn their heads and look at and make eye contact, salute, and pay respect to Xi Jinping,” Chen Pokong said. “It shows that he is higher and they’re lower. It’s about making them obey.”

All this also has the effect of “intimidating” Xi Jinping’s political opponents, said Wang Juntao, a prominent Chinese dissident and scholar, in a telephone interview. “Xi Jinping just has to control the power over the military, and other factions in the Party will be scared.”

And it takes place soon after other developments that were directed at Jiang Zemin. These include an opinion piece in People’s Daily, widely thought aimed at Jiang, telling former officials not to meddle in politics. Also, more pointed, the removal of a stone with Jiang’s inscription from outside the Central Party School. (School officials later said it had been moved inside the campus, though no photos were provided showing this.)

One of the big unknowns before the parade was whether Jiang Zemin himself would be there. Editors with the Chinese edition of Epoch Times reported their contacts saying that Jiang had made precisely such a demand, but given the intense politicking in the lead-up, it was unclear what the conclusion would be.

In the end, Jiang appeared right alongside Xi on the Tiananmen rostrum during the parade. Xi and Jiang were also observed talking at various points. The scene bears resemblance to the interactions of top Party leaders Li Peng and Zhao Ziyang in 1989 before the Tiananmen Square massacre and purge of the Party, when the top officials went to great lengths to mask their rivalry.

But what Jiang’s appearance means remains unclear. “Xi Jinping moved Jiang’s inscription; he published an editorial in People’s Daily,” Chen Pokong said. “If he lets Jiang Zemin show up, then all those things might be for nothing.”