The People's Republic at 60
China's National Day celebration features new military weaponry.
12:00 AM, Oct 14, 2009 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
National Day parades are not unusual--particularly in authoritarian police states--but for the PRC this year's parade is taking place at a time when an ominous confluence of forces and historical trends are intersecting. There are signs that the country is now at a fork in the road, and how the government and its increasingly internally conflicted Communist Party decide to focus their resources and priorities will determine its future direction.
The massive military parade at the beginning of the month is hard to categorize. On one hand it was like a "new and on-sale" showroom of Chinese military technology and advanced weaponry. Some of the systems shown--including a new class of ICBMs, a new submarine-launched ballistic missile and an anti-satellite weapon--had never been seen before. This was contradiction number one for the day, as more than one Chinese military analyst assessed. It is one thing to show off your nation's military power, but to do so with such overkill that dwarfed any of the Cold War-era, Moscow-Red Square parades makes one question if there huge show of force is masking no small sense of insecurity on the part of Beijing.
China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) also sought to show that it is a "progressive, gender neutral" institution by interspersing the massive displays of tanks, missiles and aircraft with phalanxes of female soldiers, pilots and reserve troops in the parade. The only problem was that the female troops were all marching in miniskirts and fancy leather "these boots were made for walkin'" boots. The type of outfits that probably had the political correctness/feminism crowd in America screaming for the entire PLA leadership to be forced into some work camp dominated by a twelve-step sexual harassment sensitivity awareness re-education program. The same goes for an official photo session that was held before the parade to show off all the Chinese female pilots who would be flying aircraft over the parade route.
Then there was the non-military, "fraternal friendship" part of the parade with an elaborate float procession with each one representing each province of China--to supposedly show that the PRC loves "peace, harmony and unity of purpose." This, however, does not include peace for the independent Republic of China (ROC)--more commonly known as Taiwan. Despite the fact that it is an independent nation and not at all part of the PRC, there was a float representing the ROC, which was labeled the "Treasured Island." (Otherwise known as the "Island To Be Ultimately Assimilated Or Invaded.") Considering the economic prowess of Taiwan and how it has prospered under a non-Communist regime, there is little wonder why it is considered a treasured island.
Such an act of imperial arrogance and pre-meditated aggression would be a bit like the US having a 4th of July parade in which there was a 51st State of Cuba float with a banner that read "Havana Club Rum/Los Cigars Habanos Land That We Take Over Soon" festooned in red crepe paper. However, I doubt there will be any international condemnation of Beijing as there would be against Washington for such an official display of disrespect for the sovereignty of Cuba.
Just prior to the National Day celebration Beijing held its biennial Aviation Expo China, which is supposed to be a showcase for the newest in Chinese aerospace products, as well as for all of the foreign firms doing business with China's aviation industry. Chinese industry was well-represented here, although little of the new weaponry that was about to be seen on parade was shown. The word that's coming out of Chinese industry is that the state is now demanding that the fighter aircraft and missile plants stop depending almost entirely upon state orders and start expanding their export portfolio.
This is almost exactly what happened to the USSR (and later Russia's) military industry, although it was an almost here today-gone tomorrow abrupt cut off of government support that was a consequence of the nation's late-1980s/1990s economic collapse. (Ironically the nation that benefitted most from the Russian defense industry's need to find export markets or risk extinction was China itself. Without the massive purchases of Russian weaponry and know-how Chinese industry would not be enjoying the progress that is has shown to date.)
China shows no signs of economic collapse on the order of the old Soviet regime, but there is a growing sense that the defense burden on the economy is increasingly at the expense of other pressing needs. While most of the country's 500 million city dwellers have a reasonably good lifestyle, there are still 800 million poor farmers, and western regions of the country are not developing as rapidly as the more-favored coastal special economic zones. Moreover, some high level functionaries have suggested that the state's official economic data has been cooked to paint an unrealistically positive picture.
Specifically, 24 of China's 31 provinces have "official" growth rates that are higher than the national average, which hardly seems likely. Although China has avoided many of the absurdities of the 1930s Soviet drives to meet industrial output figures (like the Soviet factory that once turned thousands of shoes, all the same style and size and all for the left foot in order to fulfill the monthly production plan), there are accusations that make-work projects are responsible for part of these falsified numbers. One provincial party leader recently criticized projects that involve building, demolishing, and the re-building bridges and other structures in an effort to pad these growth statistics.
For the moment, however, the present Chinese leadership seems content to bask in the glow of this 60-year celebratory extravaganza. None of them will be around or in power when it comes time to commemorate 70 years of Communist power in Beijing ten years from now, which is why this year's parade and other ceremonies were so lavish. What will be the picture a decade in the future matters less to them than receiving what they see is as their just rewards for having brought China to its current pinnacle of economic prowess. Whether or how long it can be maintained is a problem for the next generation.
Reuben F. Johnson is a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD Online.