BEIJING (Reuters) - Among the 100,000 almost entirely domestic participants in China’s military-led parade on Tuesday was a float bearing a dozen hand-picked foreigners - a token tribute to overseas links at time when many of China’s foreign ties are strained.
The 12 foreigners, including two Americans and citizens from African and European countries, joined the parade that featured some of China’s most advanced military technology, including dozens of jets, intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of hitting the United States, and 15,000 soldiers.
“They picked 12 people in the whole world and I happen to be one of them. It’s quite an honor,” said Beijing-based American businessman Gary Dvorchak, whose family ties with President Xi Jinping date to Xi’s often-mythologised visit to the U.S. state of Iowa in 1985.
Xi, at the time a member of a small provincial delegation on an agricultural tour, stayed with Dvorchak’s family.
“My government contacts called in June and asked if I want to be in an event on national day ... I didn’t know until two weeks ago that it was the parade,” Dvorchak told Reuters a day before the celebrations for the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
“They couldn’t tell me what it was, but they said it’ll be the honor of a lifetime, so I said ‘OK’.”
The nationally broadcast parade is a show of power by Xi, who has spearheaded a campaign for military modernization.
It is also a largely domestic affair, without any visiting heads of state.
Still, China is at pains to present a friendly face to a world that is wary of its economic and military rise in the midst of a bitter dispute with the United States over trade and technology.
Positive perceptions of China in Western countries have been eroded in the past year, according to a report released this week by the U.S.-based Pew Research Centre, as trade, diplomatic and human rights rows take a toll on its image.
China’s displays of overseas friendship, often enlisting foreigners, are sometimes awkward. Ahead of the anniversary, state media issued several videos featuring foreigners, including a chorus of U.S., Italian and Canadian singers performing patriotic Chinese ballads.
Dvorchak said some of the other foreigners taking part in the parade were flown to China. None of them was available for comment.
He said he and his foreign colleagues joined thousands of military and civilian participants in a dry run in the dead of night a week ago, including an hour-long ride by the foreigners on their float past Tiananmen Square.
“They did the whole thing, they had the TV screens up, they had cameras, even the galleries were filled with a practice audience,” he said.
“The people coming in from outside were awestruck.”
China has invited larger numbers of foreigners to take part in the parade before.
A decade ago, state media said 155 foreigners were involved, including dozens on a “One World” float and 58 foreign experts and representatives of overseas companies.
At the time, China said the foreign participants were a sign of its “increased openness to the outside world”.
This time, the government has made only passing mention of the foreign participation in the parade.
“It’s not like they’re singling the U.S. out for friendship, in fact they’re probably not,” said Dvorchak.
“It’s very much about China and China celebrating itself, as it should be. It’s just nice to be in it.”
Reporting by Cate Cadell; Editing by Tony Munroe, Robert Birsel