Tanks and other heavy weaponry rumbled across Beijing behind goose-stepping troops as China celebrated 60 years of communist rule Thursday with its biggest-ever military review — a symbol of its rapidly expanding global might.
The elaborate ceremony for the founding of the People's Republic unfolded on national television but behind tight security that 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. Even the weather cooperated, with aggressive cloud-seeding by the government having brought overnight showers to disperse smog and bring in blue skies.
The biggest difference 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. China has gone from poor and internationally weak when the communists took over on Oct. 1, 1949, to the world's third-largest economy and new power whose input the U.S. superpower seeks to solve the global economic crisis and Iran's nuclear challenge.
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 Xinjiang.
The spectacle seemed to follow on the stunning opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympics a year ago. A gala and fireworks were planned late Thursday for Tiananmen Square. While the Olympics were meant to mark China's arrival on the world stage, the parade squarely aimed to please a domestic audience.
Even the uninvited seemed excited, 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."
Standing nearby, Liu Shuping praised the blue skies: "Even the weather has paid attention today."
Police maintained a visible presence, clearly worried that crowds might get out of hand, either from overexuberance or to protest the grievances that constantly simmer in Chinese society. The large-screen television outside the Beijing Railway Station that normally streams programs throughout the day was switched off.
Still, the thousand or so people cheered "long live China" when they heard Hu's voice blaring from loudspeakers two blocks away as he reviewed the troops. Police shouted "calm down" and "don't yell." They led away one well-dressed woman waving a small flag after she crossed the police line.
Despite the slick TV production and flashy new weaponry, the display of firepower and patriotic rhetoric were old-style and likely to prove unsettling to some countries and domestic critics.
"This is not the end of an era," said Minxin Pei, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California. Rather, Pei 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."
Some Chinese grumbled that the security dampened what could have been a more public celebration and showed the government's distrust of people.
"In past years, back in the day, we were able to participate in the parades or at least stand over there and watch from the side of the streets," said one man, who only gave his English name, Winston Liu, as he milled about a side street a block from the parade route. "Now it is really strictly controlled. I guess it is for safety concerns."
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."