The July 30, 2017, parade commemorating the 90th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was an impressive display of machinery, discipline, and pageantry. Some 12,000 troops, all in combat-ready status, and hundreds of pieces of military hardware assembled at the Zhurihe Military Training base, China’s largest. Chinese leader Xi Jinping addressed the troops, exhorting them to follow the Party’s absolute leadership, to protect national sovereignty, and to support the “China dream” of rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.
Beyond the pageantry, however, the parade sent several important signals. First, the PLA signaled its determination to evolve into a world-class military, complete with technologically-advanced weapons. The parade showcased nearly 130 domestically-designed jets, battle tanks, early warning radar, anti-missile capabilities, and military transport aircraft. Forty percent of the military equipment was making its debut, including the closely watched J-20 long-range fighter, a potential rival to the US F-22 and F-35. The parade also displayed a remarkable advance in military professionalism. Combat dress, equipment, and tactical dress all had consistent camouflage, an advance over the confusing and unsightly hodge-podge of dress displayed at the 2015 China Victory Day Parade.
Less tangible were the parade’s political signals. Foremost among them is that Xi is firmly in control of the military in advance of the power reshuffle at the upcoming 19th Party Congress. Xi has been the most militarily involved of China’s leaders since Deng Xiaoping. He has reorganized the military, purged corrupt officials, and enforced surveillance of the PLA. Xi signaled his leadership of the PLA during the parade in several ways. He appeared in military fatigues, rather than civilian attire; rode the length of the parade ground in an open military jeep, calling the troops “comrades”; and instructed troops to follow the Party leadership. The presentation of the colors reinforced this last point. The Party flag led the state and the PLA flags, consistent with Mao Zedong’s claim that political power comes out of the barrel of a gun and that the Party must always control the gun. Hence, despite its name, the People’s Liberation Army serves the Party rather than the citizenry, and serves Party chief Xi Jinping above all.
Indeed, the parade was very much Xi’s show. Xi apparently wanted the world to recognize that he is the commander of a muscular military. To do so, he chose an unorthodox method: YouTube, a free video-sharing website available in nearly every country. China Global Television Network (CGTN), the 24-hour English-language news channel run by China’s state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV), uploaded footage of the entire parade. Because Chinese authorities block YouTube in China, the video was for external rather than domestic consumption. Complementing the parade video was a four-minute long music video, uploaded to YouTube by People’s Daily, complete with a bouncy rap tempo.
There are three likely reasons for posting the videos on YouTube. First, YouTube offers exposure: YouTube attracts more than 30 million visits daily. Broadcasting on YouTube demonstrates to foreigners and overseas Chinese that China is becoming stronger, and that the military will protect China’s interests, come what may. Second, it is a cost-effective way for foreigners to view the parade. Zhurihe base is in the heart of Inner Mongolia, far from anyone but invited guests. Hence, broadcasting it on YouTube assured Xi a large viewership. The music video upload to YouTube also was an attempt to expand China’s soft power by allowing its state controlled news organizations to present China, and its military, in a Westernized, flashy and musically-themed show. This video will likely attract more views than the actual parade.
As impressive as China’s growing military might appears, there are still some weaknesses that the parade did not reveal. First, the PLA is having difficulty transitioning to an all-volunteer force and attracting enough college-educated recruits. The number of soldiers that have graduated from college makes up less than 15 percent of soldiers in grassroots military companies, hindering China’s ability to develop a modern, military force capable of using its increasingly technological weapons platforms. Second, the PLA is finding it difficult to retain personnel beyond their two-year term of service. This hollows out PLA forces, as it requires a never ending cycle of training new troops to develop the skills necessary for operating specialized weapons. This also makes it difficult to develop a strong core of noncommissioned officers (NCO) capable of assuming some of the duties from the officer corps, while at the same time ensuring that the training of enlisted forces remains up to standard. The PLA undoubtedly has made significant technical and professional advances, as evidenced by the parade. A remaining challenge is to fill the enlisted and NCO billets with civilians who are educated and willing to serve.
Another political signal was directed at Taiwan. Xi’s review of the troops, his speech at the parade, and his Army Day celebration address all emphasized a strong military always ready and able to defend the Motherland. At the August 1 Army Day celebration, Xi sent a signal to Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) that Beijing will never allow Taiwan independence. In his so-called “Six Whatevers” (六個任何), Xi stated that “We will never allow any people, organization or political party to split any part of Chinese territory from the country at any time, in any form.” In a thinly veiled reference to US support for Taiwan, Xi added that “No one should expect us to swallow bitter fruit that is harmful to our sovereignty, security or development interests.” Xi’s references to Taiwan were consistent with his earlier comments on Taiwan and that of his predecessors. The PLA celebrations afforded China one more opportunity to drive the point home to the Taiwan government.
The main point: The PLA 90th anniversary parade was intended to demonstrate that Xi Jingping has successfully harnessed control of the PLA. It sent the signal that China’s military is determined to advance to a world-class force that takes its orders from the Party, and more specifically, from Party Chairman Xi. It also sent a signal to the governments in Taipei and Washington that Xi will not hesitate to use the military to safeguard China’s sovereignty and advance unification of Taiwan with the Chinese mainland.