BEIJING | The Economist | Oct 1st 2009
It was hardly a celebration, with no one allowed to line the streets or even stand on balconies to watch the troops and tanks parade through central Beijing. Amid tight security, China marked its National Day on October 1st with an extravaganza showing off a rapidly growing arsenal of sophisticated made-in-China weaponry. Even homing pigeons, commonly kept by Beijing residents, had to stay in their cages (for fear of bombing pigeons, apparently). Kite-flying was banned. China did not want its first military parade in a decade to be marred by any hint of the unrest that has roiled the distant regions of Tibet and Xinjiang in the past two years. Citizens were encouraged to stay at home and watch the spectacular on television. Unlike at the parade in 1999 which featured Russian-made SU-27 fighter-jets streaking overhead, this parade, marking the 60th anniversary of the founding of communist China, involved only Chinese-built equipment. This included everything from J-10 fighters, a newly developed plane boosted as a serious competitor to America’s F-16, and missiles, including the nuclear DF-31 intercontinental ballistic one capable of hitting anywhere in America. The Pentagon says the DF-31 has been deployed in the past two or three years. Unlike China’s older silo-based strategic missiles, which would have been relatively easy to destroy before launch, the DF-31 can be concealed on the back of a lorry.
The nearly 500 pieces of hardware rumbling through Tiananmen Square past members of the ruling Politburo also included DF-15 and DF-11 short-range ballistic missiles. The Pentagon believes that more than 1,050 of these have been deployed on the coast facing Taiwan since the late 1990s. Chinese state-run television noted that the parade was the first through Beijing to feature cruise missiles. China has been developing these to counter American warships that might intervene should hostilities break out in the Taiwan Strait. Officials were careful not to mention America or Taiwan by name. But the message was clear enough. The official news agency, Xinhua, noted that fewer troops, 8,000, took part than in 1999 (10,000). But there were more vehicles and aircraft. China has been working hard in the past decade to develop its own technologies and reduce its dependence on Russia for state-of-the-art hardware. This parade showed how far it had come.
It was also intended to show the Communist Party’s own strength at a time of global economic crisis. “Today, a socialist China geared toward modernisation, the world and the future stands rock firm in the east”, said President Hu Jintao in a speech. On the vast expanse of Tiananmen Square before him, tens of thousands of students flipped coloured cards to form phrases such as “obey the party’s command” and “be loyal to the party”. Even the weather paid heed. After several days of smog and occasional drizzle, the sky over Beijing turned a clear blue. It was Mr. Hu’s first military parade in Beijing as commander-in-chief and his last before he steps down as party leader in 2012 and as president in 2013. Marchers displayed some of his favourite slogans, such as his pledge to build a “harmonious society”. With Beijing full of security personnel, few would have been convinced that he has made much progress.