It was the kind of contradiction that seems to come naturally in China: expressions of peace as thousands of doves were let loose into the skies amidst an astonishing demonstration of military might.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, dressed in a Mao suit, was flanked by his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, as he presided over a march past by more than 12,000 troops, accompanied by tanks, mobile missile launchers and nuclear warheads to mark 70 years since the end of the Second World War.
He surprised some observers by declaring that 300,000 troops would be cut from the 2.3 million-strong People’s Liberation Army – although the move is in line with China’s gradual switch of military focus from the land to its growing navy. Also in line with much of the advance rhetoric for the Victory Day parade, portrayed as marking the defeat of imperialist Japan in 1945, he repeatedly referred to “Japanese aggression”.
“War is like a mirror,” Mr Xi said from the top of Beijing’s Tiananmen Gate, flanked by Chinese leaders past and present along with foreign dignitaries before the show of metal and muscle began. “Looking at it helps us better appreciate the value of peace. Today, peace and development have become the prevailing trend, but the world is far from tranquil. War is the sword of Damocles that still hangs over mankind. We must learn the lessons of history, and dedicate ourselves to peace.”
Mr Xi, from the sunroof of his limousine as it drove past thousands of the assembled soldiers, repeatedly declared to them, “Comrades, you’ve worked hard.” The replies came in unison: “Hello leader. We serve the people.”
Among those also present was the Unite Nations’ Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, the president of South Korea, Park Geun-hye, and the Sudanese president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court. Western leaders stayed away and Britain was represented by the veteran Conservative politician Kenneth Clarke. Tony Blair was also present in what was said to be his “private capacity”.
Minutes after nuclear-capable warheads trundled through Tiananmen Square, 70,000 white doves were released, followed into the skies by thousands of colourful balloons.
Residents of Beijing were mostly prevented from watching the parade in person but many followed it on television. Xie Luyan, 33, said: “I watched with awe the part where President Xi Jinping inspected the troops and arms. The weapons and troops showed a strong and powerful China and I am very proud.”
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