TIME

The World’s Next Superpower Announces Itself With an Epic Parade

Beijing flexes its muscle with an impressive display to commemorate the 70th anniversary of its World War II victory over Japan

There are few places in the world better suited for spectacle than the vast expanse of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. On Sept. 3, in a grand military parade marking the 70th anniversary of Japan’s official surrender in World War II, 11 phalanxes of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers strutted through the heart of China, taking what viewers had been told would be exactly 128 steps, each stride a perfect 75 cm.

Separately, guards of the national flag measured out 121 paces, each foot forward representing the number of years since 1894, when imperial Japan began to carve up Chinese territory until its defeat in 1945. Above, air-guard formations rendered a perfect 70 in the sky, marking the seven decades since Japan’s official surrender in World War II. Fifty-six cannons were rolled out, one for each of each of China’s official ethnic groups. The PLA band and chorus provided the syncopation, a drumbeat of 112 measures per minute. Training for the martial pageantry had been carried out with such dedication that, in the run-up to the parade, the 50 generals who were leading the foot formations lost an average of 11 lb., according to Chinese state media.

It was, for the casual observer sitting in Tiananmen Square on Thursday morning, under a flawlessly blue sky, difficult to judge the split-second accuracy of all the goose-stepping in China’s largest military parade in nearly half a century. Did each soldier’s stride measure exactly 75 cm? Were the tubas tooting in proper time? But the overall effect of 12,000 synchronized troops, 500 pieces of military equipment, some 200 aircraft overhead — not to mention nearly 1,000 foreign representatives from 17 countries who had joined the martial pageantry — was undeniable: once devastated by more than a century of foreign occupation and humiliation, most recently by the Japanese during World War II, China had transformed into a world-class economic, military and marching power.

No longer were China’s soldiers outfitted in the ragged clothes of the communist guerrillas, or, more likely, that of their rival Nationalists who did the bulk of the fighting against the Japanese. (The Kuomintang, or Nationalists, retreated to Taiwan in 1949 after losing the civil war to Chairman Mao Zedong’s communist forces.) The soldiers were not only sharply uniformed but arranged so that they all appeared the same height. New fighter jets soared ahead, streaming pastel-hued contrails, and the latest in ballistic-missile technology rolled past. Chinese state media said that 84% of the military hardware on display had been unveiled for the parade. “You can never exaggerate the power of a strong military,” Chinese military analyst Gao Feng tells TIME. “We Chinese have learned that we must have a strong army to protect our sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Presiding over the martial liturgy 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 power in Nov. 2012, Xi , whose father was a communist revolutionary hero (against the Chinese Nationalists, not the Japanese), has consolidated power rapidly. Perhaps in a sign of his authority, the Sept. 3 military display broke tradition as the first major procession not to take place on Oct. 1, the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. This was Xi’s parade.

In his opening speech, Xi vowed to trim the PLA by 300,000 forces in order to make it a meaner, leaner fighting force. (China is embroiled in territorial disputes with various neighbors, particularly in the South China Sea.) Some of the rest of his words were a pastiche of the various slogans and catchphrases of previous generations of Communist leaders. The homage was personally directed: gathered on the Tiananmen rostrum above Chairman Mao’s portrait were not only the current members of China’s seven-man standing committee, which steers the nation, but also Xi’s predecessors Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, along with former Premiers Wen Jiabao, Zhu Rongji and Li Peng. The appearance of Jiang provoked a gasp from the audience at Tiananmen, not only because he was well enough to attend the parade at 89 years old but also because Xi’s massive anticorruption campaign has netted many of Jiang’s acolytes.

Also surveying the troops, tanks and aircraft were 30 world leaders — most from authoritarian nations or states with strong economic and ideological ties to China. Russia’s Vladimir Putin, whose country suffered as terribly during World War II as China did, was the most prominent head of state to accept Xi’s invitation. As the only other leader from one of the wartime Allied Powers to join the festivities, Putin was honored with the anchor position in a meet-and-greet with Xi. Most Western nations declined to send top-ranked representatives. But the gathered crowds cheered for South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who has brought her country closer to China. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Egypt’s Abdul Fattah al-Sisi also attended, along with political sympathizers like Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, who secured lucrative oil loans with Beijing in the run-up to the parade.

Perhaps the most notorious VIP was alleged war criminal Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the Sudanese President who is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of masterminding genocide. During their meeting in Beijing before the parade, Xi greeting al-Bashir as “an old friend,” and China has supplied weapons to Sudan. The U.S., by contrast, sent its ambassador to China, Max Baucus.

Chinese state media stressed that the Sept. 3 event — initiated this year as a public holiday called the Commemoration of the 70th Anniversary of Victory of Chinese People’s Resistance Against Japanese Aggression and World Anti-Fascist War — would help the world “pursue peace.” In his speech, Xi proclaimed that “we Chinese love peace,” before heading off in a sun-roofed car to inspect the troops. Soon came the procession of tanks, their low rumble echoing a time 26 years ago when a lone protester stood up against a column of tanks before disappearing from history. Then the audience was treated to a march of missiles, including the much hyped Dongfeng (East Wind) 21-D, a never-before-seen hypersonic ballistic weapon that could target aircraft carriers and potentially force the U.S. Navy to rethink its reliance on such large ships.

In the viewing stands at Tiananmen, elderly gentlemen with chests full of medals mixed with young ethnic minorities wearing the distinctive costumes and hats that they are encouraged to wear during official events. Occasional children wandered by, including an 8-year-old girl named Mandy Li. “Today is a day to remember how much we hate the Japanese,” she said, as she walked along Tiananmen Square’s western perimeter. “Now we will show the world how strong China is.” Chinese textbooks emphasize the atrocities committed by Japanese during World War II, and in recent days the airwaves and newspapers have been jammed with tales of imperial Japan’s brutality. Japanese invaders killed 2.2 million Chinese soldiers, readers of state media were reminded, and imperial Japanese soldiers even raped and killed new mothers. China estimates that 35 million citizens died or were injured during the war.

After the display of military might, the Beijing parade shifted gear to the kind of paean to peace that is more common in some other countries’ war remembrances. Exactly 70,000 doves were released in the air, in honor of pacific sentiment, followed by a confetti of multicolored balloons. If the focus on the parade had been more doves and less goose-stepping, then perhaps more nations would have joined in. But as much as Xi may want to play to an international audience, the Sept. 3 show was primarily for the Chinese people. At a time of economic slowdown in China, patriotism may help the Chinese leader unite the masses. “So cool,” gasped a Beijing academic in the viewing stand as the so-called “carrier killer” Dongfeng 21-D missile rolled past. “Nobody can boss us around now.”

With reporting by Gu Yongqiang / Beijing

TIME China

China’s Stock Market Is Not In Step With Its Victory Day Parade

China Stocks Plunge On Wednesday
ChinaFotoPress—ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images Investors have a rest at a stock exchange hall on August 26, 2015 in Haikou, China.

Errant indices have the potential to embarrass party leaders intent on celebrating China's might.

As Beijing counted down the hours until a massive Victory Day military parade on Sept. 3, China’s President Xi Jinping prepared to welcome a stream of world leaders congregating for the goosestepping, missile-bristling commemoration of Japan’s official surrender in World War II: Russian President Vladimir Putin, South Korea’s Park Geun-hye, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Sudan’s Omar Hassan al-Bashir and even the Prime Minister of the tiny South Pacific nation of Vanuatu Sato Kilman. (Larger players in World War II’s Pacific theater, like the U.S. and Australia, declined to send top-level representation to China’s military pageant.)

On Sept. 2, the sky over Beijing, often polluted, shone a brilliant blue. Red flags flapped. There was only one glitch: when the Shanghai bourse opened on Wednesday morning, shares nosedived more than 4%. By the trading day’s end, the exchange had almost clawed its way back to positive territory, closing down 0.4%, as regulators rushed forward with a grab bag of rescue measures. But the stock fluctuation—capping a summer that has erased the year’s domestic market gains and caused jitters in overseas bourses—must have been embarrassing for Xi with so many national leaders in town to celebrate China’s triumphal rise.

Under the leadership of the Communist Party, China has transformed from a state of war-ravaged chaos into a rising superpower boasting the world’s second-largest economy. The V-Day parade is supposed to not only show off the latest in Chinese military technology but also prove just how far China has come since the devastation of World War II. China’s economy, though, is slowing and the stock market has refused to entirely heed the state’s ministrations. On Tuesday, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying refuted speculation about tough times ahead. “China’s economy,” she told reporters, “shows no signs of a hard landing.”

But even if China does avoid a sharp downturn, it’s also clear that Beijing can no longer count on the frothy growth rates of the past two decades. For the Communist Party, which has tied its legitimacy to lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty and delivering to them middle-class lifestyles, this new normal brings with it questions of how to sustain the loyalty of the masses. Military parades and appeals to patriotic pride may help.

“Whatever Xi’s ideas were before about nationalism, with the economy in its current state, he needs something to give him space,” says James Carter, a professor of history and China expert at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. “It’s an old trick and he’s using it.” Cue the sound of more than 12,000 soldiers parading past Tiananmen Square. Perhaps conveniently, the stock market will be closed both Thursday and Friday, in deference to the V-Day parade.

TIME China

Tiny Pacific Nation of Vanuatu to Join Motley Crew at China’s WWII Anniversary Parade

Students pose with a Chinese national flag and red stars during a event to mark the 70th anniversary of the Victory of Chinese People's War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression and the World Anti-Fascist War, at a primary school in Handan
China Daily/Reuters Students pose with a Chinese national flag and red stars during an event to mark the 70th anniversary of Japan's World War II surrender at a primary school in Handan, Hebei province, China, on Aug. 31, 2015

Thursday marks 70 years since Japan's surrender

The South Pacific island chain of Vanuatu served as a staging ground for American troops fighting in World War II. But the remote islands escaped intense combat with the Japanese. Mexico, Venezuela, Cuba, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan weren’t exactly in the thick of battle against imperial Japan either. But that hasn’t stopped these nations, among others, from planning to take part in a massive military parade in Beijing on Sept. 3, marking the 70th anniversary of Japan’s official surrender in World War II. Around 1,000 representatives from 17 nations will march in the Beijing parade.

So important is this occasion to China that Sept. 3 has been designated a new holiday, a festive occasion with the catchy name of the Commemoration of the 70th Anniversary of the Victory of Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression and the World Anti-Fascist War. China’s Victory Day parade gives the country, under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, the opportunity to flaunt both new military hardware as well as long-standing foreign friends. Most of the 500 pieces of military equipment on display, from antiship ballistic missiles to attack helicopters, will have been unveiled for the first time, according to state media, and around 30 foreign leaders will take in the pageantry, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, Sudan’s Omar Hassan al-Bashir and Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Leaders from democratic nations will be in shorter supply, although South Korean President Park Geun-hye will be in town when the parade takes place, as will former leaders like the U.K.’s Tony Blair and Tomiichi Murayama, the Japanese ex-PM who gave his nation’s most high-profile apology for its brutality during World War II.

On Thursday, more than 10,000 troops will goose-step past Tiananmen Square. To ensure that nothing will compete with some 200 military aircraft overhead, including a new bomber, flights from Beijing Airport will be grounded. The Beijing News reports that five monkeys have been trained to destroy nearby bird nests, lest young migratory birds collide with a speeding fighter jet. An average macaque, readers of the Beijing News were informed, can obliterate around 12 bird nests a day. (Falcons and dogs have also been recruited for the bird-clearing efforts.)

Vanuatu’s Prime Minister Sato Kilman will also attend the presumably avian-free festivities, in which seven members of the country’s police force will march. (Vanuatu has no army.) Now a nation of 266,000 people, Vanuatu has long enjoyed close ties with Beijing. Two years after its independence in 1980 — the archipelago was formerly the British-French colony of the New Hebrides — Vanuatu secured diplomatic relations with China. At the time, many countries sided with Taiwan, the island to which the Chinese Nationalist government escaped after losing to the Communists in 1949.

For a brief moment in 2004, Vanuatu switched allegiance to Taiwan, swayed by Taipei’s dollar diplomacy. (Six South Pacific nations currently recognize Taiwan.) But China quickly prevailed, with monetary dispensations of its own, and the Prime Minister who engineered the diplomatic switch lost his job. Another flirtation with Taiwan in 2011 was again forestalled by China. “For Vanuatu, participating in the parade is almost certainly about reinforcing and building relations with China in exchange for favors later,” says Jenny Hayward-Jones, director of the Melanesia program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney.

After Australia, China is Vanuatu’s second largest aid donor. The Lowy Institute’s Philippa Brant calculates that, from 2006 to 2013, the Melanesian nation received around $220 million in aid from China. Beijing’s largesse is responsible for new roads, buildings and public transportation in Vanuatu. Although the tiny country already has a convention center, China is building Vanuatu another one — sparking debate over whether or not Chinese funds are being used for the most suitable projects. In many developing countries, Chinese-financed ventures also mean an influx of Chinese workers, narrowing the trickle-down benefits for the local economies. Reporting last December on road construction in Vanuatu by a Chinese state-owned company, a journalist for the Vanuatu Daily Post wondered whether the upgraded road was “an early Christmas present or something else in disguise.”

Back in Beijing, the seven-man team from the Vanuatu Mobile Force flag brigade has spent the days leading up to the parade at a training base on the outskirts of the capital, according to Asa Liu, an employee of the Vanuatu embassy in Beijing. The military facility, where other foreign marching delegations are also staying, is plush, at least as appraised by a spokesman for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. There are, he announced, free accommodations, wireless Internet, laundry facilities — and a buffet of both Western and Chinese delicacies.

TIME China

China Struggles to Stay Rosy as Confidence and Markets Plummet

The Aug. 24 stock-market disarray was dubbed Black Monday

Monday was a really bad day for global stocks, and the Chinese state-run media duly covered the volatility. But the official Chinese press was more reticent in its coverage of China’s own stock-market rout, which triggered the worldwide sell-off.

On Monday, the Shanghai Composite Index dropped 8.5%, the worst decline since 2007. Tuesday saw a 7.6% fall. The latest drop in a summer of sell-offs means that the once buoyant Chinese bourse has shed more than $4 trillion since peaking in June — either a much-needed correction of an overheated market that had more than doubled in a year or a symbol of China’s more troubling economic slowdown, or quite likely both.

Even as punters counted their losses and one group even briefly kidnapped the head of a metals exchange in Shanghai, Monday evening’s prime-time newscast on CCTV, the state broadcaster, totally ignored the nation’s market woes. On Tuesday, as the Shanghai exchange opened 6.4% lower, the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, published a dispatch from Shanghai that reported not on the market fallout but instead on the installation of 12,000 sensors on manholes in one city district. The manholes, whose safety is apparently looked after by 19 separate agencies, will be monitored by satellite.

Control — even on manholes — is something with which China’s ruling Communist Party is clearly enamored. Chinese President Xi Jinping has consolidated power surprisingly quickly since taking over in late 2012 and will use the occasion of the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in China to project his authority. A Sept. 3 military parade is planned, with world leaders (and some former ones, like Tony Blair) gathered to check out China’s latest in martial hardware.

But the past few weeks haven’t exactly gone according to the party’s plan. Earlier this month, a chemical explosion in Tianjin, which killed at least 129 people, coupled with official media obfuscation, dented confidence in the party’s leadership and commitment to transparency. Earlier in the summer, the government’s unprecedented stock-market intervention only served to spook investors, leading to further declines. This past weekend, the government announced that Chinese pension funds would be allowed to invest one-third of their capital in the stock market — yet another move to try to prop up the nation’s bourses. The move was followed by Black Monday, as the Aug. 24 stock-market disarray has been dubbed. “The government still thinks it can control everything,” says Mose Ma, who works for a venture-capital firm in Beijing. “But this is the stock market, and markets fluctuate. It abides by its own logic and rules.”

Most Chinese don’t trade in stocks and foreigners only own a tiny percentage of China-listed shares. Still, the market rout, along with the Chinese government’s bungled attempts to bring stability to the market, has raised larger questions about the health of the world’s second largest economy — and the competence of its stewards. After decades of double-digit growth, China’s economy is slowing. With the nation cutting back on commodities and imports, countries that depend on Chinese consumption are bracing for impact. And for a generation of Chinese accustomed to torrid growth, the new normal is frightening to behold.

Griffin Gao, a project manager for a financial-leasing company in Shenzhen, says he escaped Black Monday only because the stocks he holds are still frozen because of an earlier suspension in trading due to steep losses. “I’m not very confident,” he says, noting that most of his customers are from the manufacturing industry and that many have closed shop in China and are now building factories in Southeast Asia. “China’s infrastructure-construction boom is over.”

In the meantime, China’s official press is focusing on preparations for the upcoming military parade. Many local papers reserved prime front-page space to articles on shock and awe, including live-fire naval drills scheduled to take place off the eastern coast of China over the next three months. Diversionary tactics are just as useful for propaganda artists as they are for military strategists.

— With reporting by Gu Yongqiang / Beijing

TIME Korean Peninsula

Beijing’s Absence Conspicuous as the Two Koreas Engage in Tense Negotiations

“Kim’s recent actions are very clearly designed to drive a wedge between Seoul and Beijing”

As the two Koreas, which have traded artillery fire and very loud K-pop over their border in recent days, continue slogging through talks to de-escalate tensions, one traditional actor is missing: China. Beijing used to hover noisily around such talks. But as the negotiations, which are now routinely being described as “marathon,” drag on into their third day, China — North Korea’s historic brother-in-arms and South Korea’s largest trading partner — has resorted to quietly sniping on the sidelines.

“As North Korea’s only ally and South Korea’s new best friend in the region, China has a natural role,” says John Delury, an associate professor at Yonsei University in Seoul and an avid watcher of both China and the Koreas. “Beijing has been noticeably, almost painfully, absent from the escalating tension on the Korean peninsula in the last couple weeks. Other than anodyne calls for everybody to exercise self-restraint, Beijing has had nothing to say or do to improve the situation.”

Despite a truce in 1953, the two Koreas are still technically at war, and the latest frictions were catalyzed earlier this month by the maiming of South Korean troops in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) border area by land mines presumed to have been laid by the North Koreans. As talks ground on, South Korean President Park Geun-hye demanded an apology for the attack — for which the North Koreans deny responsibility — even as the South kept up its psychological warfare against its cloistered neighbor by broadcasting news and pop music from loudspeakers on the border. North Korea has responded to the aural assault by firing over the border, prompting South Korea to respond with its artillery. The South Korean Defense Ministry says that North Korean troops are amassing at the border and that North Korean submarines have left their normal base.

The relationship between China and North Korea used to be famously close, in Mao Zedong’s words, as “lips and teeth.” China sent waves of its troops to fight on the North Korean side during the Korean War; Mao’s own son died during the conflict. One of the members of China’s current Standing Committee, the country’s seven-man leadership clique, was educated at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang, where he studied — as hard as it may be to believe — economics.

But China-DPRK relations, already cooling during the rule of Kim Jong Il, have turned even frostier under the leadership of his son, Kim Jong Un. Chinese President Xi Jinping, himself in office since late 2012, has made it clear he believes North Korea should abandon nuclear weapons — a position not appreciated by Pyongyang. One Chinese expert on North Korea — who wishes to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak to the foreign media — says that he has heard that Chinese leaders have tried in recent months to arrange high-level meetings in Pyongyang but have been rebuffed. “The Chinese do not like to kowtow to a strange man,” he says, referring to Kim Jong Un. “We are losing our patience.”

Earlier this year in Dandong, a Chinese border town with North Korea, businessmen complained about how trade had dried up, ever since Kim’s uncle Jang Sung Taek, who was a leading proponent of economic reform, was executed in 2013. A fancy new bridge designed to facilitate economic activity between the two countries — paid for, naturally, by China — appeared empty and forlorn. Rather than tales of business deals, locals talked about the latest North Korean soldier who had slipped across the border and robbed Chinese at gunpoint. “Business is getting worse and worse,” said one Dandong businessman who has been to Pyongyang dozens of times. “No one knows when it’s going to get better.”

Meanwhile, on Aug. 24, the Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party–affiliated daily, published an editorial warning that forces on the Korean peninsula might be trying to “strip China of its strength and geopolitical advantages.”

China, under President Xi, has spent months building up to a blowout military parade scheduled for Sept. 3 in Beijing to mark the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II. South Korean President Park, representing a country that was brutally colonized by Japan, is expected to be in Beijing at that time, although it’s not clear whether she will attend the military festivities. There is, however, no word on the planned whereabouts of the North Korean leader. “Kim’s recent actions are very clearly designed to drive a wedge between Seoul and Beijing,” says Zhu Feng, a foreign policy expert at Nanjing University. “There is a lot of disappointment and dissatisfaction on both sides [in China and North Korea].”

The Global Times op-ed speculated that the latest Korean hostilities, some of the worst since the North sank a South Korean navy ship in 2010, could be aimed at forcing Park to cancel her trip to Beijing, at a time when China hopes to show off new military hardware and flex its geopolitical muscle. “Beijing will not be led by the nose,” went the editorial, “and there is no force on the [Korean] Peninsula that could easily maneuver China.”

For all its expanding military arsenal and economic influence abroad, China’s diplomatic efforts have been less successful. “The whole situation [of China’s absence in the latest Korea talks] speaks to the limits of Beijing’s diplomatic clout, even with its neighbors, despite all the talk of China’s rise,” says Yonsei University’s Delury.

Instead, he says, “in a situation like this of real crisis, the United States is the key third party as far as both Koreas are concerned. Indeed, the North Korean Foreign Ministry went so far as to obliquely chide Beijing for telling them to have restraint, in the face of large-scale military exercises by South Korea and the U.S. I would not go so far as to say this is any kind of tipping point in China–North Korea relations, but rather, it underlines how weak the ties are between Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un.”

TIME Thailand

At Least 20 Dead in Bangkok Bombing

Foreigners were among the fatalities

The Erawan Shrine, nestled between giant malls in downtown Bangkok, is normally a riot of incense, garlands, tourists and Buddhist worshipers who come to pray to a Hindu deity. On the evening of Aug. 17, at the height of rush hour, the shrine area was shaken by an explosion that killed at least 20 people and injured 140 more, according to police and local media, who reported that foreigners were among the fatalities. Police blamed the carnage on a bomb and said they had defused a second explosive device nearby.

Initial reports said the bomb, which exploded at about 7 p.m. local time (7 a.m. E.T.) had been hidden inside a motorcycle, though police later backtracked on that claim. The popular shrine was located at the Rajprasong intersection, the site of antigovernment demonstrations in recent years. Thai Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan said it was too early to ascribe political motives, but said the bomb had been intended to “damage tourism and the economy,” the BBC reports.

Bangkok has been hit by other small explosions in recent months, some of which were later blamed by the country’s military regime on antigovernment forces. In 2010, the streets near the Erawan Shrine were also bloodied when the army cracked down on antigovernment protesters, killing dozens.

For all its tourist appeal — the country markets itself as the Land of Smiles — Thailand is not a wholly peaceful place. In its Deep South, shadowy Muslim militants have waged a campaign of bombings, shootings and beheadings that have claimed thousands of lives over the past decade. Their deadly crusade has generally not strayed outside of the nation’s southernmost provinces, which were once part of a Malay Muslim sultanate before Thailand annexed them.

After the latest coup last year — the kingdom has endured more than a dozen successful ones over the past eight decades — Thailand is now ruled by a military junta that has little sympathy for Western-style democracy. The return to army rule under the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) comes after the nation’s electorate voted for years for populist parties aligned with exiled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Ousted by the army in a 2006 putsch, Thaksin was convicted in absentia of abuse of power. His sister Yingluck Shinawatra later became Prime Minister but was forced to resign last year after the nation’s constitutional court found her guilty in another abuse-of-power case.

Thailand’s current Prime Minister is Prayuth Chan-ocha, a retired general who has ruled out polls this year and has warned journalists that he has the power to execute them should they write stories that anger him. Prayuth is backed by a handpicked parliament that has shown little concern for the desires of Thailand’s poor but populous northeast, which formed the backbone of Thaksin’s support. “One year since the military coup, Thailand is a political dictatorship with all power in the hands of one man,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, in May, the one-year anniversary of the last coup. “The date for elections continues to slide, with no certainty when they will happen. Backsliding on respect for basic rights and democratic reform seems to have no end in sight.”

The nation’s monarch, 87-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, is a unifying figure. But he is ailing. Criticism of the royal family can earn offenders lengthy jail terms for lèse majesté, and the number of such prosecutions has picked up in recent years. Hundreds of others, including political activists, have been tried by military courts for opposing the NCPO and its policies.

Thailand’s years of political instability have affected one of Southeast Asia’s biggest economies. Monday evening’s fatal bombing at a popular tourist site will also surely spook holidaymakers as they plan their next vacation. The Erawan Shrine is where some Thais go to pray for good fortune. The nation desperately needs it.

TIME China

China Scrambles to Reassure Wary Tianjin Residents Over Possible Chemical Exposure

Soldiers of the People's Liberation Army anti-chemical warfare corps work next to a damaged firefighting vehicle at the site of Wednesday night's explosions at Binhai new district
China Daily/Reuters Soldiers of the People's Liberation Army antichemical-warfare corps work next to a damaged firefighting vehicle at the site of the Aug. 12 explosions at Binhai new district in Tianjin, China, on Aug. 16, 2015.

Beijing's censorship apparatus has whirred into action following the deadly blasts

A harmless-looking white powder, sodium cyanide is lethal if ingested or inhaled. But the hazardous compound is useful in extracting gold from mines, among other things. China is now the world’s largest consumer of sodium cyanide, and domestic production has skyrocketed. On Monday, He Shushan, the deputy mayor of Tianjin, announced that the Aug. 12 warehouse blasts in the northeastern Chinese port city — which have killed at least 114 people and left 70 others, many firefighters, missing — damaged some 1,800 containers loaded with toxic chemicals. Hundreds of tons of sodium cyanide were stored in the Tianjin warehouse complex, less than 1 km from upscale residential areas.

On Sunday, residents within a 3 km radius of the blast site were evacuated, as authorities confirmed that sodium cyanide had been found nearby. Chemical-warfare troops have been dispatched. The fear is that rain — thunderstorms are expected later on Monday — could spread lethal materials stored in the warehouses, including sodium cyanide and calcium carbide, into a city of 14 million.

Inclement weather and volatile chemicals notwithstanding, the official line in China is one of control and confidence from the top levels of officialdom. On Sunday, China’s Premier Li Keqiang, along with a team of identically dressed officials in white button-down shirts and black trousers, visited the blast site and honored the firefighters who had died on duty. The central government has dispatched investigators to determine if dereliction of duty could have led to the apocalyptic explosions. Tianjin Deputy Mayor He said that any sodium-cyanide residue in the perimeter of the blast site would “mostly be cleaned up” by Monday evening.

But such assurances are hardly of comfort to relatives of the missing, who wonder why the government has done little to update them on their loved ones. Even families of firefighters have taken to social media to complain that local officials have neglected to keep in contact with them. Residents of high-end Tianjin apartment buildings, now shattered and shaken, have protested that, unbeknownst to them, they were living dangerously near warehouses storing toxic chemicals. Chinese law forbids the storage of such poisonous materials less than 1 km from residential neighborhoods. Why were bags of sodium cyanide allowed to be stacked so close by?

The People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece, reported over the weekend that Rui Hai International Logistics, the firm that owns the warehouses where the blasts took place, may have been smuggling chemicals. An employee of Hebei Chengxin Co., one of China’s largest producers of sodium cyanide, confirmed to TIME on Monday that the firm stored the compound at Rui Hai’s warehouses before sending batches overseas to foreign buyers. The last shipment of sodium cyanide from Hebei Chengxin arrived at Rui Hai’s warehouses about a week before the blasts, said the employee, who refused to give his name. “Chengxin is a legitimate company and did not violate any laws, including the environmental-protection law,” he told TIME. The employee said that Hebei Chengxin’s boss, along with around 140 other staff, had descended on Tianjin to help with the cleanup efforts.

Hebei Chengxin is based in Hebei province’s Yuanshi county, an area where cornfields and chemical factories collide. (Hebei province abuts Tianjin.) In recent years, residents of cities both big and small in China have protested against the construction of polluting or potentially dangerous factories near them. So-called NIMBY (not in my backyard) protests have been among China’s most successful civil actions — and most contentious, with local governments often cracking down on residents for daring to oppose potential drivers of local economies.

On Monday, Caijing, a Chinese business publication known for its occasional scoops, reported that one of Rui Hai’s stakeholders was Dong Mengmeng, the son of an ex-police chief of the Tianjin port. Although Rui Hai’s official share structure does not include his name, an unnamed source told Caijing that Dong was involved in the company. While the former public-security boss’s son could well be a legitimate private businessman, the nexus of power and money in China is such that the Caijing allegation, if true, raises the specter of corruption in the development of one of northern China’s fastest-growing zones.

The explosions, which registered a 2.9-magnitude on domestic earthquake scales, took place in the Tianjin Binhai New Area, a vast economic zone that has been heralded as a showcase of China’s hybrid capitalist-communist economy. There are only a handful of such special zones in China, including Shenzhen, near Hong Kong, and Pudong in Shanghai. Binhai’s rapid development is associated with Zhang Gaoli, Tianjin’s political boss for five years beginning in 2007, who now serves on China’s seven-man leadership committee. Chinese state media noted that while China’s economy slowed during that period, Tianjin recorded 16.5% GDP growth for five consecutive years.

On Monday, the Communist Party–linked Global Times published an editorial headlined “Tianjin Officials Fumble to Communicate,” alleging that “officials at grass-roots levels are not willing or not good at facing the public voice.” But when that public speaks or speculates, the results can be risky. China’s Internet regulator has disciplined 50 websites for “creating panic by publishing unverified information or letting users spread groundless rumors” about the explosions, according to state media. Censors warned domestic publications to only use reporting about the Tianjin blasts from official newswire Xinhua, according to China Digital Times, which monitors such propaganda directives from California.

Over the past few years, as industrial accidents and other safety scandals have exploded across China, officials have vowed transparency. Yet each time, censorship and official obfuscation have prevailed. On Sunday, China’s Public Security Minister Guo Shengkun demanded that authorities “release information concerning the Tianjin blasts and rescue operation in a timely and transparent manner, to respond to public concerns,” according to Xinhua.

Yet independent domestic reporting on the Tianjin blasts is now much reduced, even as fires and new explosions were reported at the blast site on Monday morning. Chinese citizens must surely wonder what is going on, even if they have been warned not to speculate on social media. On the afternoon of Aug. 17, the People’s Daily tweeted a breaking story in English: soldiers of an antichemical-warfare regiment patrolling the Tianjin blast site had rescued a fluffy puppy.

With reporting by Gu Yongqiang / Beijing

TIME Aviation

Chinese Families Remain Suspicious Despite ‘Confirmation’ MH370 Crashed in the Ocean

"I have lost my faith in the investigators”

A whole 515 days after Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared from the skies en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak confirmed early Thursday that a barnacle-encrusted fragment of wing that had washed up last week on the remote Indian Ocean island of Réunion, a French territory, was indeed from the doomed flight. “It is with a very heavy heart,” Najib told a press conference organized around midnight in Malaysia, “that I must tell you that an international team of experts has conclusively confirmed that the aircraft debris…is indeed MH370.”

In France, where aeronautical experts near Toulouse were examining the flaperon, as the chunk of the wing spotted on the pebble beach is called, prosecutor Serge Mackowiak used less definitive language, instead saying that there were “very strong indications” that the Boeing 777 chunk was from MH370. (No other Boeing 777s have been reported missing in the Indian Ocean area.)

Najib, whose government has been criticized for fumbling the investigation into the jetliner’s disappearance, said the confirmation of the flaperon’s origins “will at least bring certainty to the families and loved ones of the 239 people onboard MH370,” most of whom were Chinese. The Malaysian leader spoke of the “unspeakable” nature and “torment” of their loss.

But several families of Chinese passengers felt no certainty in Thursday’s announcement — and even less a sense of closure. “I don’t care if they found the wreckage, and I don’t care where the plane is,” says Li Huiyun, whose husband was on the jet. “If they cannot find the bodies and know what happened to our relatives, it’s meaningless.”

Since the March 8, 2014, disappearance, family members have endured ham-fisted coddling from Malaysian authorities. After initial support from the Chinese government, relatives of those on MH370 endured repression when they veered outside of the officially sanctioned parameters of grief. Relatives have been physically harassed by Beijing authorities, one so badly she ended up in the hospital. Others have been detained, some accused of breaking Chinese rules against unapproved public gatherings.

With no sense of what exactly happened, despite search efforts by 26 nations, certain family members have expressed skepticism in the commonly accepted explanation that the plane went down somewhere over the southern Indian Ocean. (Australian authorities are around half-way through combing 46,000 sq. mi. of ocean floor around 1,000 miles west of Perth, and say the discovery of the wing part has not shifted their focus.) “I do not believe the plane is stranded on the sea floor as some people say,” says a woman surnamed Yuan whose husband was also on the flight. (Yuan does not want her full name used or that of the husband she married just a couple months before the plane’s disappearance.) “How can I trust [the investigators]?”

Messages in Chinese chat groups organized by family members speculated whether the plane was actually hijacked by radical Islamic terrorists who secretly landed in the wilds of Central Asia. Others blame the CIA for having somehow captured it. Wu Xia, whose husband was also one of the MH370 passengers, wonders whether some of the passengers even got on board. “I suspect they fabricated the whole thing about the wreckage being found,” she says. “Why did it take so long for them to verify the [flaperon]? I have lost my faith in the investigators.”

It took two years for investigators, working out of the same Toulouse aeronautics center where the MH370 wing part is being examined, to figure out what happened with Air France Flight 447, which plummeted into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009 on its way from Rio de Janeiro to Paris. For the families of the MH370 victims, the wait could be even more extended — a long time to keep the faith.

—With reporting by Gu Yongqiang/Beijing

TIME olympics

Beijing Wins Bid to Host 2022 Winter Olympics

The huge financial burden prompted most candidates to drop out

The final choice for the host city of the 2022 Winter Olympics was uninspiring. One candidate, Beijing, which co-bid with the lesser-known Chinese city of Zhangjiakou, spent months trying to convince International Olympic Committee (IOC) delegates that its famously bad air — not to mention lack of natural snow — shouldn’t scupper its chances.

The other contender, Almaty, boast lots of powdery stuff because of its positioning at the foothills of the Tian Shan range. (Almaty’s slogan, perhaps aimed at Beijing and its man-made snow, was Keeping It Real.) But Kazakhstan’s former capital had to overcome a serious obstacle: its obscurity, especially compared with a Chinese city of more than 20 million people.

The two candidates shared other weaknesses: neither has much in the way of global winter wonderland appeal. And both are tainted by the authoritarian governments that lead them. In recent months, China’s President Xi Jinping, who just hours before the Olympic decision appeared in a video pitching Beijing 2022, has presided over a crackdown on civil society, in which hundreds of people — such as lawyers, writers and women’s rights activists — have been detained. Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev claimed a 98% victory in this year’s polls but the long-serving leader has a habit of muzzling the media and jailing his opponents.

On July 31, at a secret vote by around 85 IOC members in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the 2022 Winter Olympics were awarded to the oddmakers’ favorite, Beijing. After all, the Chinese capital had successfully hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics. No one doubts China’s ability to build needed infrastructure within seven years. “There can only be one winner,” said IOC President Thomas Bach, in a razzle-dazzle ceremony, complete with soaring music. Xi, in his video campaign, had already projected that Beijing 2022, the 24th Winter Olympics, would be “fantastic, extraordinary and excellent.”

The K.L. polling was marred by technical doubts in which the initial vote by electronic tablet was considered possibly lacking in “integrity,” forcing IOC members to vote again by written ballots. Previous IOC ballots, including one in which Beijing lost to Sydney by two votes for the right to host the 2000 Summer Games, were marred by vote-buying scandals. The IOC vowed to root out corruption within its ranks. Late last year, the powerful group also unveiled reforms designed to limit the budget overruns that have plagued recent host cities.

The IOC was left with Beijing/Zhangjiakou and Almaty by default, after cities such as Oslo and Stockholm pulled themselves out of the race because of financial concerns. (Lviv’s bid was derailed by war in Ukraine.) Olympics may bring global prestige but they have a habit of saddling host cities with huge bills and sporting facilities that rust away after the crowds disperse. The 2014 Sochi Olympics, for instance, cost Russia an estimated $50 billion.

For 2022, Beijing and Almaty gave estimates of $3-5 billion (including some infrastructure not specifically for the Games) but Olympic cities rarely stick to their budgets. Sochi overspent by $36 billion. Earlier this week, the U.S. Olympic Committee pulled the plug on Boston’s bid to host the 2024 Summer Games, after local opposition to the potential financial burden.

In the run-up to the July 31 victory, Beijing brought out Chinese icons like towering basketball legend Yao Ming to promise that the Games would be “athlete-centered.” Other former Olympians gave assurances about Beijing’s air, which city officials said had improved by around 15% in the first half months of 2015, compared to the same period last year. “We will improve the air quality not only for the Games but also for the demand of our people,” said Shen Xue, a pairs figure-skating gold medalist, according to Chinese state newswire Xinhua. “No matter whether we win the bid or not, we will take efforts to improve the air quality.”

Chinese Olympic officials vowed that snow-making efforts would be “sustainable” in a chronically parched region. To speed the journey to the ski slopes of Zhangjiakou, which are around 200 km from downtown Beijing, city-planners have promised to build a high-speed rail system that will transport athletes in less than an hour — a third of the time it now takes. In other countries such a project might seem overwhelming. But this is a country that has already expanded its national rail network in record time.

Beijing’s 2022 bid slogan was translated in English as Joyful Rendezvous Upon Pure Ice and Snow. (It sounds better in Mandarin.) President Xi has enthused about the potential for winter sports development in his homeland — just imagine, 1.3 billion lugers, biathletes and curlers, if Xi’s estimate of future winter sports enthusiasts is to be believed. Still, sports are not integrated into daily life in China as they are in, say, Brazil or even India. Zhangjiakou, where Olympic snowboarding, biathlon and certain skiing events will take place, has developed resorts for aspiring Beijing skiers but it was traditionally better known for fur production.

The Beijing 2008 Olympics were expertly choreographed and allowed China to proclaim its rising super-power status. China won 51 gold medals, more than any other country. The medal haul was all the more impressive given that China won just five gold medals two decades before in Seoul. But the Beijing Olympics suffered from a fun deficit. Compared to other Games, there were fewer public venues where locals could gather to watch the competition on TV and rejoice in China’s sporting glory; some residents resorted to peering through a metal fence at the lavish venues. Even today, despite efforts by the government to encourage nationwide fitness, school sports remain underfunded for children who aren’t being cultivated as potential Olympians. (Chinese kids need to spend more time cramming for tests.)

The fact that China has already hosted an Olympics and made history may explain why the domestic reaction to the 2022 race was relatively muted. On Friday morning, a corruption investigation of a retired People’s Liberation Army general generated more cyberspace comment than the Winter Olympics vote. International human-rights campaigners, however, used the occasion to highlight human-rights violations in both candidate nations. “Whether China or Kazakhstan wins the honor of hosting the 2022 Winter Games, the IOC will face an extreme test of its new commitment to improve human rights protections,” said Minky Worden, Global Initiatives director at Human Rights Watch, before the final vote. “The International Olympic Committee should insist that the host country rigorously comply with the Olympic Charter and basic human rights rules — or risk losing the right to host the games.”

At least Beijing is a known quantity, even if co-host Zhangjiakou is less recognized. (Zhangjiakou progressively lost shared billing with the Chinese capital as the bid progressed.) Any guesses where the 2018 Winter Olympics will be held? That would be Pyeongchang, South Korea. Not exactly a world-famous winter retreat like Innsbruck (the 1964 Games), Sapporo (1972) or Vancouver (2010).

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