On Thursday in Beijing, a massive military pageant will course through Tiananmen Square. For hours, thousands of crisply trained troops will march in formation as line after line of tanks, missiles and every other instrument of destruction, more than 500 in all, puts on a display meant to shock and awe.
Nobody will rain on this parade. To achieve a "military parade blue sky" on the day, the government has been restricting the use of vehicles and temporarily closed polluting industries for miles around. They also imposed new software on China's Great Firewall to enhance Internet censorship, which the Communist Party newspaper called an "upgrade for cyberspace sovereignty."
These steps, combined with the usual roundup of outspoken lawyers and human-rights proponents, attest to the importance that the party has placed on this show of its military might. To further mark the occasion, a large number of prisoners who served in the Communist military before their life of crime will be granted clemency and released from jail.
The pretext is the 70th anniversary of "victory of the war of resistance against Japanese aggression and the world's anti-fascist war" – also known as the Second World War. Of course, the huge contribution of Allied forces, the Chinese Nationalist Kuomintang (now in exile in Taiwan) and the U.S. atomic bombs to defeat the Japanese has been slighted in a new revisionist narrative that buttresses China's increasingly assertive expansionist strategy.
Many world leaders have been invited to watch from the Gate of Heavenly Peace overlooking the Tiananmen Square. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs formally announced the list of China's "true friends" who will view the parade alongside the Communist leadership.
In a sign of China's spiralling dominance in East Asia, the President of South Korea will be a prominent participant. In sharp contrast, North Korea – whose Workers' Party had previously been characterized "as close as lips to teeth" to the Chinese Communist Party – is sending just a member of its Politburo. This startling gesture raises the question of how much longer South Korea will allow U.S. troops to be stationed there. Vietnam's President will also attend, but not leaders of Malaysia, the Philippines or other parties to the South China Sea territorial dispute.
The guest list comprises 30 state leaders, including Russia's Vladimir Putin, Jacob Zuma of South Africa and Pakistan's Mamnoon Hussain. But no leaders are attending from the United States, Japan, Germany or Canada.
With its invitation to the parade, Beijing is essentially asking countries: "Whose side are you on?" South Korea's and Vietnam's responses suggest how they see the future of the Sino-American power balance. On the other hand, the attendance by the President of the Czech Republic forms the sole exception to the European Union's reluctance to show up and symbolically affirm China's continuing rise in the global order.
This all comes at a time when the Communist Party is feeling less secure about its rule, given that China's economic institutions remain in serious, unprecedented crisis, and there have been surprising expressions of public anger over tragedies such as the Tianjin chemical explosion and even fundamentals such as food safety.
President Xi Jinping has responded with a crackdown on "Western influences," a consolidation of power for his office and an intense anti-corruption purge incarcerating and harshly interrogating more than 100,000 Communist officials, most associated with factions in China's security apparatus or military, or with loyalty to previous party strongmen Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin. However, the ferocity of this latest oppression has caught public attention, prompting a rare and intriguing admission in China's state media that "the scale of the resistance" to Mr. Xi's new policies "is beyond what could have been imagined."
This does not bode well, but don't expect the party to court the citizenry by moving toward democratic political institutions, a free press or an independent judiciary. Any shortcomings of China's governance will continue to be ascribed to the foreign-inspired moral failings of corrupted individual officials, not to any deficiencies in the political and economic system itself.
Over time, the regime's response will most certainly be more sabre-rattling assertions of nationalism, to rally the public behind Mr. Xi's leadership. Thursday's parade could be just the beginning of a new era in Chinese Communist militarism.