Soldiers will march, gleaming hardware will roll, and warplanes will fly above Tiananmen Square at China’s WWII anniversary parade, but major Western leaders are shunning the show as Beijing assumes an increasingly assertive role on the global stage.
Chinese authorities are pulling out all the stops for Thursday’s commemoration, mobilising hundreds of thousands of Beijing citizens, imposing traffic restrictions — including closing the capital’s airports — and curtailing pollution-spewing factories and vehicles to try to ensure blue skies.
President Xi Jinping will oversee the spectacle to mark the 70th anniversary of the “Chinese People’s War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression and the World Anti-Fascist War”, as Beijing officially calls the conflict.
China is increasingly influential in the world, where it is already the second-largest economy and sees itself as a “great power” equal to the United States.
But the chest-pumping display comes as Beijing is engaged in high-profile maritime disputes with neighbours in the South China Sea, where it is building artificial islands and facilities with military uses, and with Japan over disputed outcrops.
It also coincides awkwardly with increasing doubts about the capability of Xi and the country’s other leaders to manage a growth slowdown that has spooked domestic and foreign financial markets.
Absent will be key leaders from Western democracies such as US President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and, least surprisingly, nationalist Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
John Delury, an expert on Chinese history and politics at Yonsei University in Seoul, says Beijing very much wants to drive home its growing global importance.
“It’s a classic power projection,” Delury told AFP.
“They’re trying to get as much attention as possible, showing off the might of a resurgent China, what Xi Jinping talks about: China is wealthy and powerful.”
The parade will showcase 12,000 Chinese soldiers as well as an array of domestically-produced military hardware, and close to 1,000 foreign troops from countries including Russia will participate.
The People’s Liberation Army has promised that 84 percent of the firepower on display will be shown for the first time and according to state media reports the weapons will include carrier-based aircraft, long distance bombers and various types of missiles.
The sight of military might in Tiananmen Square, where Chinese troops crushed protests in 1989, is likely to be keeping some democratic-minded Western leaders away.
Chinese media seem to have grudgingly accepted the absence of a top visitor from Washington, even ahead of a official trip by Xi to the US this month.
But Beijing sees Tokyo as insufficiently contrite for its 20th-century invasion and occupation of China, which independent historians estimate cost 15 to 20 million lives, and Japan has been extended no such courtesy.
“China has adopted a calm attitude toward the absence of some Western leaders,” the Global Times newspaper, which is close to the ruling party, said in an editorial Monday.
“However, Japan is busy hiding itself from this grand event,” it went on, accusing Tokyo of “pettiness”, an “immoral misstep”, and “obviously embarrassing itself”.
The guest list includes the leaders of Kazakhstan and Venezuela, as well as Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir — indicted by the International Criminal Court.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is by far the most high-profile foreign leader attending after Xi went to a similar event in Moscow in May, which was also shunned by major Western leaders over the annexation of Crimea and fighting in eastern Ukraine.
More mainstream guests include South Korea’s Park Geun-Hye, whose country was colonised by Japan, Jacob Zuma of South Africa — which with China is part of the BRICS groups of major emerging economies — and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
Authorities have indirectly acknowledged modern Japan is not the same country as seven decades ago, with defence ministry spokesman Yang Yujun telling reporters: “The parade is not targeting any other country, not targeting today’s Japan, not least targeting the Japanese people.”
But the Communist Party uses nationalism as a key part of its claim to a right to rule, and China’s official media have carried a litany of articles on past Japanese atrocities, with war dramas a constant theme on television.
The propaganda campaign has also focused on the resistance of “the entire Chinese nation” against Japan, obscuring the Communist Party’s rivalry with the then governing Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek, who was defeated in the ensuing civil war and fled to Taiwan.
Recently China has only carried out such giant military shows once a decade, and always on the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic on October 1.
This one instead comes on the day after Japan formally surrendered in 1945 on the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.
“In some ways what they’re trying to do is say ‘Hey, look, we were on the right side of World War II,'” said Yonsei University’s Delury. “‘We were the good guys, we fought against the bad guys’.”