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China flexes muscles with World War II military extravaganza

Story highlights

  • China holds military extravaganza to mark WWII anniversary
  • President pledges to slash numbers of military personnel
  • Japan urges China to look to the future

Beijing (CNN)With swarms of fighter jets and helicopters flying overhead, some 12,000 troops marched through the center of Beijing as China marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II with its biggest ever display of military might.

Presiding over the extravaganza on Thursday, President Xi Jinping, the country's most powerful leader in decades, said that China would remain committed to "the path of peaceful development" and unexpectedly pledged to cut 300,000 troops from its 2.3-million strong military.
    The parade was the first since Xi came to power in 2012 -- but it was largely shunned by Western leaders, including China's former wartime allies, the United States and UK.
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    Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Park Geun-hye of South Korea and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon were the highest-profile dignitaries to take their seats on a podium in Tiananmen Square, in the ancient heart of Beijing.
    Xi, standing up in a black, Chinese Red Flag limousine, drove past and greeted troops stood in neat formation along Chang'an Avenue before the parade began in earnest.

    Missiles and doves

    Hundreds of ballistic missiles, tanks, amphibious assault vehicles, drones and other military equipment were paraded past the gathered leaders, veterans and guests.
    To cap the celebration, some 200 fighter jets took to the skies and 70,000 doves and balloons were released above Tiananmen Square.
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    Among the 12,000 troops were contingents from Russia, Pakistan and 15 other countries.
    Yvonne Chiu, assistant professor of politics at the University of Hong Kong, said that Xi's pledge to cut troop numbers was relatively insignificant given that China's military budget would likely continue to rise at a double-digit pace.
    "China's military is huge. It's an easy gesture for him to make."
    No effort was spared to ensure the landmark event proceeded without a hitch.
    Hundreds of factories were shut in the build up to the event to ensure crystal blue skies, flights in and out of Beijing were canceled for the parade's duration and, just to ensure that the city's airspace was safe, monkeys, falcons and dogs were deployed to scare away birds.

    Japan: Look to future

    One leader whose absence was never in doubt was Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
    The Japanese leader's failure to offer a new apology for Japan's brutal invasion and occupation of much of China in the 1930s and 1940s has prompted new denouncements from Beijing.
    In his speech, Xi said that China's victory "crushed the plot of the Japanese militarists to colonize and enslave China" and "put an end to China's national humiliation of suffering successive defeats at the hands of foreign aggressors in modern times."
    On Thursday, Yoshihide Suga, Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary, said his country would like to see China look to the future.
    What ordinary Beijingers thought
    "As 70 years has passed after World War II, we would like China not to excessively focus on the unfortunate history of China and South Korea in in the past, instead would like to see the future-looking attitude to tackle common issues facing the international community."
    While China has said that the victory parade wasn't aimed Japan, it's clear that anti-Japanese sentiment underpins the celebrations.
    TV dramas about the war against Japan will be shown this week despite a nationwide ban on entertainment programming.
    And in Shanghai, an ice cream chain is giving away popsicles that resemble Hideki Tojo, Japan's wartime Prime Minister who was hanged as a convicted war criminal.

    'Global military force'

    In his address to the nation, Xi stressed China's peaceful rise and pledged to slash troop numbers but the weaponry that rolled past him sent a different message, said Chiu at the University of Hong Kong.
    "All this new equipment -- fighter jets, carrier killing missiles, drones -- give China force projection capability. If all you need is regional defense you don't need all this," she said.
    "It signals China's ambition to be a global military force."
    Commonplace under Chairman Mao Zedong, China has held fewer showpiece parades in recent decades.
    The last was for the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China in 2009 under the watch of former President Hu Jintao.
    For Xi, the stakes were high. The victory parade allowed him to project his power in a region where many countries are wary of China's ambitions.
    At home, the parade has allowed Xi to distract from turmoil in the financial markets and a massive industrial explosion in Tianjin that killed more than 150 people.
    In the background are rising social tensions and ethnic unrest in parts of the country, as economic growth slows.

    Beijing in lockdown

    And while Chinese are enjoying a three-day public holiday as part of the celebrations, many Beijing residents weren't able to see the parade themselves.
    Those living within the lockdown area were virtual prisoners for the parade's duration: They weren't permitted to leave their homes, invite guests, use balconies or even open windows.
    And good luck to anyone wanting to tune out the pomp and pageantry.
    Broadcasters were prohibited from airing any entertainment programs, half of Beijing's five million registered cars have been banned from the road, and many of the city's parks and tourist attractions are shuttered.
    But many Beijingers said they were proud and excited to host the celebrations despite the disruptions.
    "Watching the parade makes me very nervous and very happy too. I saw men, women, young and old, they sweated so much and they got sunburnt for this," said Chen Qinmin, 27, who works in storage admin.

    Forgotten history?

    You Guangcai, a 96-year-old veteran, watched the parade from his home in Beijing. But he told CNN that the celebrations focused too much on the Communist Party.
    You fought for the Nationalists, who formed an easy united front with the Communists during Japan's occupation. After the end of the war, the two sides fought a bloody civil war and Nationalist forces fled to Taiwan.
    Even today, the self-ruled island -- which Beijing regards as a renegade province -- still retains the formal name of the Republic of China.
    In Mao's China, the Communist Party had little regard for the wartime contributions of their Nationalist enemies. But both Communist and Nationalist veterans were honored during this year's ceremonies.