By Ben Blanchard and Lucy Hornby
BEIJING (Reuters) – China celebrated its wealth and rising might with a show of goose-stepping troops, gaudy floats and nuclear-capable missiles in Beijing on Thursday, 60 years after Mao Zedong proclaimed its embrace of communism.
Tiananmen Square in central Beijing became a high-tech stage to celebrate the birth of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949, with the Communist Party leadership and guests watching a meticulously disciplined show of national confidence.
Celebrations began in the morning with troops firing cannons and raising the red national flag while President Hu Jintao, wearing a slate grey “Mao” suit, looked on from the Gate of Heavenly Peace over the Square.
Hu descended to Beijing’s main thoroughfare and inspected rows of troops, riding past them in a black limousine and bellowing repeatedly, “Hello comrades, hard-working comrades!”
“From here it was that Chairman Mao solemnly announced the founding of the People’s Republic of China, and from then the Chinese people stood up,” Hu told the guests and troops.
“Today a socialist China embracing modernization, embracing the world and embracing the future stands lofty and firm.”
The two-hour parade of 8,000 soldiers, tanks and missiles, 60 elaborate floats and 100,000 well-drilled civilians was a proud moment for many Chinese citizens, watching the spectacle across the country on television. Later in the evening, Tiananmen Square will be lit up with a huge fireworks display.
“I am very proud of the military today. You can see we are getting stronger and stronger as a nation,” said Qiu Chengjie, a 25-year-old businessman from southern Guangdong province.
The government also wanted the day of extraordinary spectacle and security to make the case that its formula of strict one-party control and rapid growth remains the right one for hauling the world’s third-biggest economy into prosperity.
China has enjoyed growing economic and diplomatic sway in the wake of the global financial crisis, but its leaders remain nervous about their grip on power and international standing.
The surprises of the last six decades — including upheavals like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution — have not deterred an army of pundits from trying to peer into China’s future, making forecasts not just a few years ahead, but decades.
“China is poised to have more impact on the world over the next 20 years than any other country,” the U.S. National Intelligence Council’s “Global Trends 2025″ report said.
The soldiers goose-stepping past at exactly 116 steps a minute carried the theme that the Party knows how to run a show — and a huge country.
“This was for the leaders, for them to show they’re in command, so everything was completely controlled,” Zhang Ming, a historian at Renmin University in Beijing, told Reuters.
“Ordinary people will feel excited and proud, but in the end the public was not a part of this. This was for the leadership to show them and the world they are fully in charge.”
Beijing also brandished its military muscle, with a flyover and show of weapons, including rows of what state TV said were Dongfeng 31 missiles, capable of carrying nuclear warheads more than 10,000 km (5,400 miles).
China is spending billions of dollars modernizing its 2.3 million strong military to make it more high-tech and flexible. Two sources with ties to the People’s Liberation Army have told Reuters that China aims to cut its army by 700,000 over two to three years while boosting the navy and air force.
But the overwhelming security controls highlighted a central paradox of present-day China. The government claims it has never been stronger and closer to its people, yet appears afraid of even small incidents that could tarnish its authority.
Even as the displays celebrated the People’s Republic, security cordons prevented residents from seeing the parade, with central Beijing emptied of all passers-by.
“It’s not really for us ordinary people, is it?” said Wang Chenggong, a migrant worker from rural central Henan province trying to watch a TV near a crowded streetside stall.
Residents on the parade route were banned from peeking out their windows.
“Go home! Leave now! Go watch TV at home!” a policeman yelled through a bullhorn at a crowd gathering miles from the square.
After the military parade, floats lauding China’s history, achievements and regions passed by.
They included a farm produce float with two model cows; one showing China’s space programme with a lunar orbiter; and an Olympic Games display with a model of the Bird’s Nest stadium.
China is a country of yawning social contradictions, with hundreds of millions of farming families living in dirt-poor hardship despite the rapid economic growth, and restive ethnic minorities in the western Tibet and Xinjiang regions.
Today these disparities were dissolved in the displays of material abundance, ethnic unity and political control. (Additional reporting by Yu Le and Emma Graham-Harrison; Writing by Chris Buckley, Editing by Dean Yates)