A Show of China’s Military Force Serves as Drumroll for U.S. Visit

At the heart of a country that has long considered itself the center of the world sits an empty expanse. Beijing’s Tiananmen Square is built for hosting human spectacle, and for decades China’s communist rulers–and their occasional critics–have filled the vast plaza to lay claim to the Middle Kingdom’s soul. On Sept. 3, the ground again shook below the Gate of Heavenly Peace, which is what Tiananmen means in Chinese. Some 12,000 goose-stepping soldiers marched past the square, followed by tanks and trucks bristling with weaponry, including the Dongfeng 21D, a newly unveiled ballistic missile that could target the aircraft carriers so vital to the U.S. Navy.

Presiding over the military parade, which marked the 70th anniversary of Japan’s official surrender in World War II, was Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, chairman of the Central Military Commission and President of China–his titles in descending order of importance. Since taking control of the party in November 2012, Xi, whose father was a communist revolutionary, has rapidly consolidated power.

Holding the parade on Sept. 3 was a sign of that authority. The military display was the first major procession not to take place on Oct. 1, China’s National Day. This was Xi’s parade–and the message transmitted by the tanks and fighter jets was unambiguous: once devastated by more than a century of foreign interference, China, under the party’s leadership, had transformed itself into a world-class economic and military power.

Nationalism is hardly unique to China. Still, the parade, along with Xi’s appeals to patriotism, signals a Communist Party searching for a unifying ideology. The communists are rightly proud of lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, in part by abandoning disastrous socialist experiments in favor of market reforms. At 62, Xi, who will make his first state visit to the U.S. later this month, is the strongest Chinese leader in decades. His mantra, painted on posters nationwide, is the “China dream,” which promises national rejuvenation in tandem with a kind of personal prosperity doctrine.

Yet the social contract the Chinese government once made with its citizenry–we let you pursue material wealth, and you let us rule without question–is fraying. After two decades of frothy GDP expansion, China’s economy has slowed. The Shanghai stock exchange spent the summer in free fall. “Should the economic pillar fall, [Xi and Co.] need something else to steady them,” says Jessica Chen Weiss, author of Powerful Patriots: Nationalist Protest in China’s Foreign Relations. “The nationalist pillar will become even more crucial to maintaining the party’s power.”

Xi’s China dream is also bumping up against the aspirations of other countries. In the South China Sea, where various atolls are claimed by a selection of six governments, Beijing has expanded spits of sand into islands large enough to welcome Chinese fighter jets. While U.S.-China summits usually result in a flush of goodwill in the preceding weeks, the current atmosphere remains chilly: beyond a commitment to tackling climate change, Washington and Beijing disagree on practically everything, from alleged Chinese cyberwarfare to whether the U.S.’s renewed military interest in the Pacific is to contain China or to keep the regional peace. (The negativity is enhanced by U.S. presidential candidates outdoing each other to show how tough they are on China.)

The Tiananmen parade showed off 500 pieces of military equipment, most never seen before. Earlier, Chinese navy ships sailed near Alaska for the first time, just as U.S. President Barack Obama was visiting the state. Yet projecting power overseas is not the foremost concern for the average Chinese. Income disparity and unemployment have risen. “Are the Chinese people whipped up into a nationalist frenzy?” says historian John Delury, who co-wrote Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century. “Far from it. The ‘China dream’ they really want is the part about reaching middle-class affluence.” Not so different from the American dream.