Chinese leader Xi Jinping watches a helicopter fly past, part of a big military parade on Sept. 3 at Beijing’s historic Tiananmen Square.
Lan Hongguang—Xinhua/Getty Images
September 10, 2015 6:10 AM EDT

At the heart of a country that has long considered itself the center of the world sits an empty expanse. Beijing’s Tiananmen Square is built for hosting human spectacle, and for decades, China’s communist rulers—and their occasional critics—have filled the vast plaza to lay claim to the Middle Kingdom’s soul: Chairman Mao Zedong and his victorious Red Army in 1949, Red Guards intent on revolutionary purity in 1966, even student protesters before the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) crushed their cause in 1989.

On Sept. 3, the ground again shook below the Gate of Heavenly Peace, as Tiananmen means in Chinese. Some 12,000 goose-stepping soldiers marched past the square, followed by tanks and trucks bristling with weaponry, including the Dongfeng 21D, a newly unveiled ballistic missile that may be able to target the aircraft carriers that are so vital to the U.S. Navy. Presiding over the military parade, marking the 70th anniversary of Japan’s official surrender in World War II, was Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Chinese Communist­ Party (CCP), chairman of the Central Military Commission and President of China—his titles in descending order of importance. Since taking control of the CCP in November 2012, Xi, whose father was a communist revolutionary, has rapidly consolidated power.

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 communist People’s Republic in 1949. This was Xi’s parade—and the message transmitted by the rumbling tanks and soaring fighter jets was unambiguous: once devastated by more than a century of foreign interference, most recently by the Japanese during World War II, China, under the CCP’s leadership, had transformed itself into a world-class economic and military power. Xi’s new world order envisions a Chinese-led regional bank and globetrotting state-owned companies, along with expanded trade networks radiating from China that could tie together some 60 nations, much as the ancient Silk Road once did.

Nationalism is hardly unique to China. Still, the parade, along with Xi’s mounting appeals to patriotism, signals a Communist Party searching for a force for national cohesion, as other dogmas lose their allure. “It’s really the first time that China has used nationalism as a unifying ideology at a time when it’s strong, as opposed to using nationalism to overcome national humiliation,” says Rana Mitter, director of the University of Oxford China Center and author of Forgotten Ally: China’s War With Japan, 1937–1945.

The governing communists are rightly proud of lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, in part by abandoning disastrous socialist experiments for market reforms. At 62, Xi, who will make his first state visit to the U.S. later this month, is the strongest Chinese leader in decades. His leadership slogan, painted on countless propaganda posters nationwide, is the “China dream,” which promises national rejuvenation in tandem with a kind of personal prosperity doctrine.

Yet the social contract the Chinese government once made with its ­citizenry—we let you pursue material wealth and you let us rule without question—is fraying. After two decades of frothy GDP expansion, China’s economy has slowed. July’s manufacturing output was bleak, August’s exports were down, and economists wonder whether the nation will reach Beijing’s goal of 7% annual growth only by fudging the numbers. To bolster its currency, the yuan, China has dipped into its foreign reserves, the world’s largest. The day before the military parade, the Shanghai stock exchange ended in negative territory, capping a summer of shares in free fall—despite the government spending hundreds of billions of dollars trying to prop up the market. “Xi and his administration are rethinking the way in which the party’s legitimacy is tied to the economy, because should the economic pillar fall, they need something else to steady them,” says Jessica Chen Weiss, an associate professor of government at Cornell University and the author of Powerful Patriots: Nationalist Protest in China’s Foreign Relations. “The nationalist pillar will become even more crucial to maintaining the party’s power.”

Flag-waving doesn’t occur in a global vacuum, and Xi’s China dream is bumping up against the aspirations of other countries. In the resource-rich South China Sea, where various atolls are claimed by a selection of six governments, Beijing has embarked on an island-building frenzy in disputed waters, turning spits of sand into land masses large enough to welcome Chinese fighter jets. While U.S.-China summits usually result in a flush of goodwill in the preceding weeks, the current atmosphere remains toxic: beyond a joint commitment to tackling climate change, Washington and Beijing disagree on practically everything, from the seriousness of alleged Chinese cyberwarfare to whether the U.S.’s renewed military interest in the Pacific is to contain China or to keep the regional peace. (The negativity is enhanced by the U.S. electoral cycle in which presidential candidates outdo each other trying to show how tough they can be on China.)

Certainly, the West would have drawn scant comfort from a parade that showcased 500 pieces of military equipment, most of which had never been seen before. Just prior to the march, Chinese navy ships sailed near Alaska for the first time—a potent symbol of Beijing’s projected power given that U.S. President Barack Obama was then visiting the state. The Pacific may be at peace, but a hawkish Prime Minister rules in Japan and American ships cruise the ocean with the endorsement of Chinese rivals like Vietnam and the Philippines. “You can never exaggerate the power of a strong military,” says Beijing-based defense analyst Gao Feng. “We Chinese have learned that we must have a strong army to protect our sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Toward the end, the martial pageantry softened. Exactly 70,000 doves were released into the air, along with multicolored balloons. Xi promised to trim the military by 300,000 people, proclaiming that “we Chinese love peace.” (His speech that day mentioned the word peace 17 times.)

To prove China’s global reach, troops from 17 other nations strutted in the military march. But only one head of state showed up in Beijing from the main World War II Allies: Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Nearly all European leaders stayed away, despite Beijing’s invite, and most of the foreign parade participants were from nations that are either China’s ideological soul mates (Cuba, Kazakhstan) or recipients of Beijing’s economic largesse (Vanuatu, Cambodia).

The enduring image from the parade was not of fluttering doves but of goose-stepping soldiers—patriotism trumped by jingoism. “The Chinese leadership can’t have their cake and eat it too,” says James Carter, an expert on modern Chinese history at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. “They are presenting the idea that China is peaceful, cosmopolitan and international, but they are pretty aggressively expanding their territory and they’re not interested in conciliatory policies. It’s hard to reconcile these two forces.”

Mao Zedong, the father of communist China, delighted in disruption. His soldiers launched lightning strikes in India and Vietnam, and he sent waves of troops to fight alongside the North Koreans during the civil war on the Korean Peninsula. (Mao’s own son died during the latter conflict.) At home, class struggle reigned. Mao pilloried ancient sages like Confucius. Red Guards denuded museums of their artistic treasures, which were seen as symbols of imperial decadence and decay.

Now, 66 years after Mao formed his People’s Republic, the communists are entrenched in power. Far from fomenting revolution, the CCP is today more focused on self-preservation. Private ownership is back. So is Confucius, whose respect for authority can be used to the current government’s advantage. This reversal in values is little remarked on in China—since life has gotten so much better so fast, why dwell on such inconsistencies? “Abandoning tradition and discarding roots means killing our spiritual life,” Xi told CCP cadres last year. Some of these party faithful may well have burned books, beaten up capitalist roaders and smashed priceless relics in their younger days. Today, they recite ancient virtues and send their kids to college in America.

It’s fitting that the CCP’s future depends on Xi Jinping, the princeling scion who, despite hard years exiled to a cave after his father fell out with Mao, is a proud member of China’s red nobility. After graduating from university, Xi worked as an assistant to the then Defense Minister, and he cultivated friendships with men who are now in the PLA’s top ranks. Later, Xi governed cities and provinces that were on the vanguard of China’s market reforms. “Reviving national wealth and power has been the driving force in Chinese political and intellectual life since the mid-19th century, and Xi is simply an heir to this grand tradition,” says John Delury, a historian who co-wrote Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century. “Perhaps we see the nationalist core more clearly when other ideologies get stripped away, as has occurred with communism.”

Since taking power, the Xi administration has ordered universities—and the government itself—to be cleansed of pernicious Western values, such as the notion of universal human rights and freedom of expression. (Germany’s Karl Marx, however, is immune to such antiforeign campaigns, as was Xi’s own daughter, who attended Harvard.) The Chinese leader has been careful in his public pronouncements. But in 2009, while still Vice President, Xi snapped at outside critics and gave a glimpse of his true thoughts. “Amid international financial turmoil, China was still able to solve the problem of feeding its 1.3 billion people, and that was already our greatest contribution to humankind,” he said in Mexico City, referring to the global financial crisis. “[Yet] some foreigners with full bellies and nothing better to do engage in finger-pointing at us.”

Feeding one-fifth of humanity is an impressive feat, especially in a country with limited arable land. Despite the economic slowdown, purchases by Chinese consumers still represented nearly one-third of the global luxury market last year, according to the consultancy Bain & Company. But perhaps the Chinese leadership’s greatest accomplishment—at least to ensure its continued existence—has been to erase the distance between party and nation. To love China is to love the CCP. “It’s a very simple and successful attempt to connect the Chinese Communist Party with the strengths of the Chinese nation,” says Carter. “Unlike in Eastern Europe where communist parties were antagonistic to nationalist movements, the Chinese Communist Party has defined itself as the defender of the nation.”

China’s military parade—on a day that was designated a new holiday called the Commemoration of the 70th Anniversary of Victory of the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression and the World Anti-Fascist War—stoked national devotion. What populace doesn’t thrill at the sound of the national anthem playing as chiseled soldiers march past, especially if it’s on an unexpected three-day weekend? It helped that the weeks before the parade were dotted with press articles and TV dramas documenting the brutality of the Japanese invaders. Young Chinese have already undergone decades of patriotic education that highlight Japanese wartime atrocities, while skimping on the Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution and other disastrous communist campaigns that claimed even more lives than the Japanese occupation ever did. Leading up to the parade, government censors worked overtime to silence critical voices. A Taiwan actress who posted pictures of her twins on Sept. 3 was trolled by Chinese online nationalists for debasing the solemn occasion.

Nevertheless, dissonant voices managed to pierce the official narrative. “The tone of the ceremony was that this was the Chinese Communist Party’s ceremony, not the Chinese people’s ceremony,” wrote Ren Yi, the grandson of a communist revolutionary, on his Chinese social-media account. His comments went viral but other independent voices have been silenced. In recent months, hundreds of Chinese, from writers and lawyers to feminists and labor activists, have been jailed, the most comprehensive crusade against Chinese freethinking in years. Xi has also unleashed an anti­corruption campaign that has netted tens of thousands of officials, including some of his political rivals.

Xi, who is three years into his expected decadelong term, has defied the ­consensus-driven leadership practiced by his predecessors Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin. “Xi seems to have a grand plan, a sense of historical destiny for the Chinese nation during his period of paramount leadership, in a way [his predecessors] did not,” says Delury. Rather than divvying up responsibility with other members of the seven-man Politburo standing committee that rules China, Xi has personally assumed control of so-called “leading small groups,” which form policy on everything from cybersecurity to foreign affairs. Traditionally, Chinese Premiers steer the economy, but Xi has made himself head of the Central Leading Group on Comprehensively Deepening Reforms, a powerful entity formed in 2013. He has taken responsibility for assembling members of the new, China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which the U.S. has boycotted even as many other democratic nations have signed up.

As the undisputed ruler of the undisputed ruling party of China, Xi stands among the most powerful men in the world. But power cuts both ways. When things go wrong, there’s no one else to blame. So far, Xi’s antigraft effort and strong messaging have won him domestic support. But this year has brought with it a cavalcade of unwelcome news: a sharper than expected economic slowdown; stock-market blues that radiated from China to elsewhere in Asia and even to the West; and a chemical explosion in the port city of Tianjin that killed more than 160 people and exposed the official negligence behind so many business deals in China. Despite Beijing’s well-funded efforts at soft power, China’s cultural reach hardly reflects the glories of such an ancient civilization. A Pew survey released in June found that only 27% of people polled in 40 countries saw China as the world’s leading economic power, while the number of people who say the U.S. holds that title rose to 50% from 45% last year.

Nationalism in China, moreover, has a way of turning against the ruling power. The Qing dynasty, China’s last, was felled by patriots who demanded robust rulers worthy of their subjects. The 1989 student protesters also brought nationalist sentiment to Tiananmen Square. “In nurturing nationalism, Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party are playing with fire,” says Cornell University’s Weiss. “It’s a way of diverting the public’s attention from the economy to foreign policy but that supposes they can deliver on the international stage. It remains to be seen how they can defend the nation’s honor.”

Sustained economic growth is more crucial to the average Chinese than ownership of specks of land in the South China Sea. Income disparity and unemployment among college graduates has risen. (No one trusts the official national unemployment rate of 4.1%, and respected international economists suggest the real figure could be at least double the government’s estimate.) Some of China’s richest people have sent their families abroad, where their money is better protected and the environment less polluted. “Are the Chinese people whipped up into a nationalist frenzy over militaristic plans to invade foreign lands, overthrow regimes and conquer territory?” says historian Delury. “Far from it. People want economic growth to resume. The ‘China dream’ they really want is the part about reaching middle-class affluence.”

In countries with open political systems, getting booted from power doesn’t necessarily doom a party to extinction. But Chinese history has not tended to give rulers second chances. “In our culture, patriotism means to follow the party because the party is the only representative of the country,” says Chinese historian Zhang Lifan, whose father was a minister for the early communist regime before being purged. Zhang used to have a large following on Chinese social media but government censors have silenced him. He worries that the current leaders, some of whom he grew up with, are isolating themselves from critical thinking. Still, Zhang believes that Beijing is well aware of the existential stakes. “Chairman Xi knows that if the Communist Party loses power, it will have lost power forever,” he says. “This fight is a fight for survival.” —With reporting by Gu Yongqiang/Beijing

This appears in the September 21, 2015 issue of TIME.

Contact us at letters@time.com.

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