Chinese president, Xi Jinping, has presided over a spectacular display of military and political might, ordering members of his 2.3 million-strong armed forces to "unswervingly follow the absolute leadership of the Communist party of China”.
Xi donned camouflage fatigues for the hour-long Sunday morning parade, which marked the 90th anniversary of the creation of China’s People’s Liberation Army, on 1 August 1927.
The procession took place at a sand-swept, 1,000 sq kilometre camp that state media described as China’s answer to the United States’ Fort Irwin national training centre in the Mojave desert.
Foreign journalists were not invited to witness proceedings at the Zhurihe military training base, 400km north-west of Beijing in Inner Mongolia.
But China’s party-run media said about 12,000 troops, more than 100 types of aircraft and 600 pieces of military hardware were put on display at the sprawling desert camp.
The weapons systems on show reportedly included J-15 fighter jets, the J-20 stealth fighter, "type 99” battle tanks, Red Arrow anti-tank missiles and H-6K bombers.
The parade concluded with China showing off a new generation of intercontinental missile – the Dongfeng-31AG – which, with a range of about 11,000km, are capable of striking most parts of the US.
As their commander-in-chief rode past on top of an open-backed jeep, thousands of rifle-toting troops bellowed: "Serve the people! Follow the party! Fight to win!”
On the surface, Sunday’s parade was a tub-thumping display of China’s increasingly sophisticated military prowess. "A strong army is the backbone of a strong country,” boasted one commentator narrating a live television broadcast of the event.
But with a key Communist party summit marking the end of Xi’s first term in power on the horizon it was also an intensely political showcase of his apparently unassailable position at the top of China’s one-party system.
"All comrades, commanders and soldiers of the PLA: You must unswervingly follow the absolute leadership of the Communist party of China, listen to the directions set by the party and follow its command. Wherever the party points, you shall march,” Xi declared, in a brief but emphatic address that followed the parade.
Willy Lam, a politics expert from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the demonstration of strength was aimed partly at international rivals including India, with which China is currently engaged in an acrimonious border dispute, and the United States.
Above all, though, it was about bolstering Xi’s image as China’s top dog. "In Chinese tradition, power grows out of the barrel of the gun: whoever has control over the military and the police will be the supreme leader,” Lam said.
"So this is a show of force by Xi Jinping … aimed at warning his political enemies and also the other factions in the party that he is firmly in control. He is the big boss and he will have a free hand in making personnel arrangements at the 19th party congress.”
Television commentators and military officials reinforced the sense that the parade was as much about politics as it was military affairs. "The soldiers are in the right place, at the right time and they are ready to do whatever the central military commission – led by president Xi Jinping – asks them to do,” senior colonel Zhou Bo, from China’s Ministry of National Defence told state broadcaster CGTN.
Ren Guoqiang, a defence ministry spokesman, told reporters the rally "fully demonstrates that soldiers firmly support, and are loyal and respectful of the Chinese Communist party’s central committee, with comrade Xi as its core”.
Ren claimed China’s military had been transformed in the almost five years since Xi took power, in November 2012, "like a phoenix rising from the ashes”.
China will host its 19th Communist party congress this autumn, a twice-a-decade conclave at which some of the most senior positions in Chinese politics will be distributed.
As Xi prepares for the event, which marks the midpoint of his anticipated 10-years in office, some believe he is seeking to promote himself as the third great leader of post-revolution China, after its founder, Chairman Mao and Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China’s breathtaking economic boom. Posters being sold in some Chinese shops feature a politically-charged hologram that morphs from Mao’s portrait to that of Deng and, finally, Xi.
Lam said he suspected Xi’s ambitions went even further: "He wants to position himself as the Mao Zedong of the 21st century … He wants to be the Communist party’s second biggest star – its second most important leader – even going beyond Deng Xiaoping.”