River Crabbed: The Emperor’s Left Hand

The grand Victory Day parade in Beijing on September 3 was received by a largely favorable Chinese public, the massive (and often controversial) preparations that preceded it—smog-scrubbing, route-clearing, online nationalism stoking, and history reinterpreting—appeared to have paid off. However, as President rode down Chang’an Avenue to inspect the processions, it became clear that one preparatory measure was overlooked: ensure that Central Military Commission Chairman Xi is well-acquainted with protocol surrounding military salutations. According to the “Chinese People’s Liberation Army Formation Regulations,” a military salute is performed: 

[…] standing upright, the right hand rapidly rises, with the five fingers gathered naturally and stretched straight, and the fingers connected to two cm of the right corner of the brim, the palm facing downwards, and declining outward (at about 20 degrees), the wrist must not bend, the right arm level, with shoulders in link, while attentively watching the recipient. [Chinese]

Most college-educated members of the Chinese public are well acquainted with this protocol, having gone through mandatory military training (军训). Netizens took note that Xi was using the wrong hand, and the Wall Street Journal ranked Xi Jinping’s left-handed salute number one on a list of five memes from the parade:

By late Thursday afternoon, “Left-Handed Salute” was the No. 2 topic on China’s Weibo microblogs, with 280,000 views. Why, Web users asked, did Chinese President Xi Jinping appear to salute the troops with his left hand? Some users said it is because only members of the military use their right hand, while civilians use their left; others reached back into Chinese history to quote the Daoist text Tao Te Ching. […] [Source]

Amid wide speculation on the significance of Xi’s left-handed salute, the People’s Daily took to Weibo to clear things up:

Netizens discovered that at the military parade, Daddy Xi used his left hand to salute troops while returning to Jinshui Qiao in his inspection vehicle. Some people questioned, and enthusiastic netizens spontaneously offered explanations, going so far as to quote the classics, using the Tao Te Ching as evidence that the left-hand salute was carefully chosen. In fact, it was just a camera angle error, the reality was that Xi Jinping was waving to the Army, Navy, and Air Force officers to send his greetings. (September 3, 2015) [Chinese]

This explanation was parroted by Chinese news portals, and soon the official narrative had crowded out any alternative theories or Internet commentary without any overt censorship in the form of banned search terms. A Baidu search for “left-hand salute” (左手敬礼) yields page after page of results citing the People’s Daily account, and similarly most Weibo results for the term are citations of the state media explanation.

With the mainland media narrative monopolized, foreign Chinese-language reports allowed a bit more nuance in their analysis. In an interview with Radio France International, Mingjing “Waican” magazine editor-in-chief He Lanruo lays out and refutes the official explanations given for President Xi’s left-handed salute: the People’s Daily claims that Xi was waving, not saluting, and that the camera angle gave viewers the wrong impression; while “official guidance of public opinion, disseminated online” has it that Xi does not need to observe the same regulations as an active duty officer. “You only have to watch the footage of the military parade to know this is far-fetched,” He says of the first explanation. As for the second, He points out that chair of the Central Military Commission, from Mao Zedong to Deng Xiaoping, would dress in uniform when reviewing the troops. The real reason for Xi’s wrong-handed salute, He suggests, was “insufficient practice” or “improper guidance.” He Lanruo does think that this mistake is worthy of concern: if Xi Jinping can’t salute properly, “then how are we to trust him with nuclear weapons and intercontinental guided missiles?

Chen Xiaoping, acting editor-in-chief of Mingjing Media, told VOA that Xi Jinping’s left-handed salute was the simple result of human error, undeserving of anxiety. But in the same report, scholar Hu Ping said Xi’s gaff was indeed a serious matter. “Just think of the reverse situation and the seriousness of this issue will be crystal clear,” said Hu. “If the troops in the parade had mis-executed their moves, failing to correctly perform some crucial movements under the gaze of the public and the world, what would happen? Without a doubt, the soldiers who misstepped would be severely punished.”

At Wenxue City, a post recalls an instance when former CCP General Secretary Hu Yaobang sternly reprimanded PLA Navy commander Liu Huaqing after being given a left-handed salute by an officer.

On Twitter, Wen Yunchao agreed with the “insufficient practice” theory, interpreting the blunder in the spirit of Hans Christian Andersen:

The reason for Xi Jinping’s “left-hand salute” is simple. All other participants in the military parade all drilled countless times, only Xi had never taken part in a drill. Nobody dared ask him to participate, and no one imagined that he would use his left hand, so there was no prior reminder. As for blaming Xi’s left-handedness for his left-handed salute, the biggest possibility is that the enormous pressure caused his brain to short-circuit. This affair is truly a carbon copy of the Emperor’s New Clothes.