BEIJING – Jets, tanks and missile-toting trucks thundered through Beijing on Thursday in a show of military muscle to celebrate six decades of communist rule and China’s transformation from a war-battered regional player into global economic superpower.
Most people in the capital could only watch the elaborate ceremony for the founding of the People’s Republic unfold on national television, as tight security excluded ordinary people from getting near the parade route through Tiananmen Square.
Precisely choreographed, the two-and-half-hour event hewed closely to tradition. President Hu Jintao, in a Mao jacket instead of a business suit, rode in an open-top Red Flag limousine to review the thousands of troops. A parade of kitschy floats, flanked by more than 100,000 people, lauded the communist revolution and the Beijing Olympics.
A female militia in red miniskirts and shiny white boots added a jolt of colour to the sea of fatigues – and showcased efforts by the armed forces to be more inclusive.
Even the weather co-operated, after the government’s aggressive cloud-seeding produced overnight showers to disperse smog and bring in blue skies.
“The message that is intended is: ‘We are modern, we are Chinese, we are great, we are fantastic, and we all do it because of the great leadership of the Communist Party,”‘ said Steve Tsang, a China politics expert at Oxford University.
The most novel aspect was the weaponry, more than had been shown before and most of which was domestically produced: dozens of fighter jets and hundreds of tanks, artillery and trucks carrying long-range, nuclear-capable missiles.
“On this joyful and solemn occasion, all the peoples across the nation feel extremely proud for the progress and development of the motherland and have full confidence in the bright prospects for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” Hu said in a short speech standing atop Tiananmen gate with the rest of the collective leadership looking on.
Behind the celebrations is the tremendous change of fortunes China has experienced. A poor country that was weak internationally when the communists took over on Oct. 1, 1949, China has become the world’s third-largest economy and a power whose input the U.S. seeks to solve the global economic crisis and Iran’s nuclear challenge.
China is now the world’s largest auto market and has more Internet and mobile phone users than anywhere else.
Virtually all Chinese families now have at least one television and, in the cities, a washing machine – rare items three decades ago. Some 15 million families own private cars, and many Chinese also own their own homes.
The parade floats showcased such material gains by toting models of high-speed trains, giant computers, cars and bundles of wheat and rice in the wake of the military’s display.
Unmentioned during the event and crescendo of state media hype in recent weeks were the ruinous campaigns of revolutionary leader Mao Zedong that left tens of millions dead – as well as the country’s current challenges: a widening gap between rich and poor, rampant corruption, severe pollution and ethnic uprisings in the western areas of Tibet and predominantly Muslim Xinjiang.
An evening gala on Tiananmen Square later Thursday featured thousands of performers singing and dancing for nearly two hours while dramatic bursts of multicolored fireworks erupted in the background. Driving home the party’s message of harmony and ethnic unity, several songs were about the steadily improving and happy lives of Tibetans, ethnic Muslims and other minorities under communist rule.
The show, like the opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympics a year ago, was choreographed by film director Zhang Yimou.
As part of the night’s finale, Hu and other top leaders descended from their VIP platform onto the square, holding hands and singing “Ode To The Motherland” along with the artists.
While the Olympics were meant to mark China’s arrival on the world stage, both the parade and the gala squarely aimed to please a domestic audience with a strong emphasis on popular Chinese culture and appearances by national heroes, such as performing artists, astronauts and athletes.
The strategy seemed to work, with people gathering on side streets to get a glimpse of the passing parade or watching from home.
“China’s power makes us proud. Over the span of 60 years, China has developed so rapidly,” said retiree Wang Shumin, standing in a back alley watching the parade on TV through a shop window. “China is now powerful and has a position on the world stage.”
But in Hong Kong, which has Western-style civil liberties as part of its special semiautonomous status, hundreds of people protested Thursday, denouncing China’s human rights record during 60 years of communist rule.
About 200 people marched through the downtown financial district, chanting, “We want human rights. We don’t want a sanitized National Day.”
Tibetans also staged protested outside Chinese embassies in India and Nepal.
Minxin Pei, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California, said the event continues a strategy deployed since the military crushed the Tiananmen democracy movement in 1989: “a one-party state that uses its economic success to bolster its legitimacy in any way conceivable, including a Soviet-style military parade.”
He said the money would have been better spent on scholarships for students in impoverished rural areas.
Associated Press writers Henry Sanderson and Gillian Wong in Beijing and Min Lee in Hong Kong contributed to this report.