‘A Fantasy Fit for Kings’
China's upcoming victory parade is about forgetting its past and pretending its diversity and internal divisions don't exist.
On September 3, China will mark the 70th anniversary of its World War II victory over Japan with a massive parade involving thousands of Chinese troops and an arsenal of tanks, planes, and missiles in a tightly choreographed march across Tiananmen Square. China’s leaders call this display of power “The Commemoration of the 70th Anniversary of Victory of the Chinese People’s Resistance Against Japanese Aggression and World Anti-Fascist War.” What is the meaning of this event and why have China’s leaders invested so much in executing it? —The ChinaFile Editors
To celebrate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, I am reading Ian Buruma’s splendid, unsettling book Year Zero: A History of 1945. Buruma explores all the sordid messiness of that year of surrender, from Germany’s in May to Japan’s in August. He is unsparing in the details of how, after a brief ecstasy, brutality and destructiveness seeped into the immediate post-war months of what is erroneously called “peacetime.” He also shows how callous were the forces that took it as their mission to re-order the world: unleashing a rump spasm of violence to cower populations into submission, sweeping justice under the carpet of “national reconstruction,” manipulating a sense of victimhood for self-serving ends. Buruma does manage to find fleeting scenes of nobility amidst the chaos of the war’s end, typically the acts of lone individuals who miraculously kept their moral compass intact. Although there are only a few places where he goes in-depth about China, Buruma knows Japan well and writes vividly about the evaporation of its brutal Asian empire.
Reading Buruma’s historical meditation on the reality of 1945 highlights the ahistorical absurdity of the military pageantry in Tiananmen Square intended to commemorate it. A military parade is a display of not only of state power, but also of social order. Indeed, it is an apotheosis (or dystopia) of social order, reducing a dynamic, diverse citizenry into columns of soldiers, marching in unison, dressed in matching fatigues, saluting their commander, embodying the monolithic nation. A military parade is a fantasy fit for kings — a live performance of what Yale Professor James Scott calls “seeing like a state.” If only citizens marched and saluted like soldiers, thinks the king to himself. If only society could be arrayed in perfect rows and matching colors. If only the stock market would rise steadily like a flock of a thousand pigeons. If only history of and since 1945 were the story of how fascism was defeated and world peace was protected.
But real history is the antithesis of a military parade, as is real governance. What Scott calls “seeing like a state” is in fact a form of blindness; just as the Commemoration Parade is a ritual of forgetting. Tiananmen Square has seen quite a bit of real history come and go. This Victory Day parade will pass, but the Square and its possibilities will remain.
China is a bit behind in its efforts to make the Second World War a grand myth for orienting values and legitimacy in the present. Americans have been so successful for so long at commemorating their role in World War II via stage, screen, parade, monument, and sound-bite that most Americans are surprised to learn that in the league table of national losses in the war, the United States ranks low, likely between Hungary and Korea. The United Kingdom not too many weeks ago performed its annual somber celebrations of the Battle of Britain and V.E. Day, and most Britons would bristle at any conclusion by modern historians that in resisting German attacks Britain actually had the advantage, and did not win in the face of daunting odds.
In Russia, the only country to suffer deaths in the war that in numbers compare to China’s and in proportion of population far surpass China’s, the Victory Day commemorations may have flagged a bit during the dreary years of the 1990s, but Russian President Vladimir Putin has moved briskly to bulk it up, appropriating the glory of his ancestors’ dogged victory over Germany — and alienating E.U. leaders who mistakenly believe that World War II is 70 years in the past. That Chinese President Xi Jinping can see what Putin can see is not too surprising. It is a pleasant day out to dress up like the dead and congratulate yourself on their triumphs while rumbling out the heavy machinery and making a lot of noise. Maximum mass precision and minimal individualist brooding. We all like it.
The scale of the Communist Party’s celebration invites ridicule, but excess in the pursuit of purloined glory is no vice. It would be easy to linger on the petty, spiteful aspects of the current pageant — that it is an endlessly repeating celebration of Japan’s defeat; a chance to animate a Chinese Communist Party version of the war that will diminish the roles of former Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek, the once-ruling Nationalist party, and the Americans; and an opportunity to gin up a minatory display of martial prowess for the benefit of the United States, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Taiwan. I’m sure those effects are all intended. But in China as elsewhere across the world, those who actually lived through World War II are disappearing fast. The living now get to publicly act out any story they want about the lonely, heroic struggles of their own nation against the unmitigated evil and insuperable powers of their neighborhood Axis foe. They get to tell a story of civilizations and values that culminates with them. They get to not merely remember, but be, the heroes of what Americans call the “last good war,” fought by the “greatest generation.” It is a global axial moment, and the Chinese Communist Party understandably does not want to fall behind in the ability of the Allied successor states to place themselves squarely in the line of heroic succession. For Putin and Xi in particular, winning World War II is paying more dividends all the time.
Image: AFP/Getty Images