Tanks, Missiles and No Pigeons: China to Celebrate 70th Birthday of the People’s Republic

BEIJING — Enormous flower arrangements in Beijing extol the signature promise of China’s leader to realize the Chinese Dream. Red banners urge people to “rally closer” to the Communist Party with “Comrade Xi Jinping at its core.” The authorities have restricted live entertainment venues, ordered people to vacate apartments and banned flying kites, sky lanterns and even homing pigeons, a charming feature of many neighborhoods.

As the Communist Party of China prepares to celebrate the 70th anniversary of its rule, the state is choreographing the pomp and pageantry to exalt President Xi as the unassailable leader of a rising nation and the indispensable bulwark against an array of challenges that threaten to erode its iron grip on power.

On Tuesday, the country’s National Day, he will preside over a military parade through Tiananmen Square whose preparations appear as ambitious and, arguably, as grandiose as the leader himself. It will involve 15,000 soldiers and sailors, 160 fighter jets, bombers and other aircraft, and 580 tanks and other weapons — some of them, military commanders hinted coyly, never before seen in public.


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For Mr. Xi, the anniversary has come at an opportune, and much-needed, moment. It has given him a chance to bask in the party’s achievements at a time when it is coming under increasing strain, especially from the economic drag of the trade war with the United States. It is also fending off condemnation of the government’s mass detentions of Muslims in Xinjiang; battling an epidemic of African swine fever that has driven up prices for that Chinese staple, pork; and trying to contain months of protests in Hong Kong that have surged into an open defiance of Beijing’s rule.

“The republic is built by each brick and tile like this,” Mr. Xi said on Wednesday after riding an express train 25 miles south from the city center to inaugurate Beijing’s new international airport, one of the mega-projects that China has built as an affirmation of its political and economic greatness. The airport, with seven runways and a star-shaped terminal by the famed Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, is set to be the world’s largest.

On the occasion of a simple ribbon cutting, he sought to channel the spirit of the founding of the People’s Republic of China by quoting from one of Mao Zedong’s revolutionary war poems, “Loushan Pass,” about a battle in the mountains of Guizhou in 1935.

Idle boast the strong pass is a wall of iron

With firm strides we are crossing its summit

In seven years in office, Mr. Xi has successfully consolidated his power by purging rivals, crushing dissent and removing the constitutional limits on his power. He has made the party the arbiter of all aspects of Chinese life and urged greater ideological purity to gird the nation for what he repeatedly describes as a great and continuing struggle.

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He has sought to amass power as great as any leader since Chairman Mao, and even, to the dismay of some critics, presumed to place himself beside Mao in the pantheon of China’s Communist leaders.

“Xi gets it that the story matters,” Timothy Cheek, a professor of Chinese history at the University of British Columbia, wrote in an email. “He is facing what the Soviet bloc faced in the 1980s: lack of belief in the professed values of the party in the face of obvious contractions and corruption.”

That failure is a lesson that Mr. Xi and other leaders have studied well. China has thrived in ways the Soviet Union did not, largely because it managed a transition to a kind of free-market capitalism that offered millions of Chinese greater material prosperity.

Sustaining that is now the greatest challenge facing Mr. Xi and the party. China’s growth has slowed to its weakest point in decades, as the trade war grinds on the economy and consumers pull back. While trade talks continue, President Trump has continued to lash out at China, calling it a “threat to the world.”


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Chairman Mao Zedong and international guests took part in celebrations for the 13th National Day of the People’s Republic of China.CreditCreditBritish Film Institute, via Getty Images

“The weak link is not the lack of democracy,” Mr. Cheek said of the foundations of the party’s power. “It is the prospect of an economic downturn, of a failure to deliver to the ordinary citizen.”

The expectation of protests in Hong Kong, the semiautonomous territory returned to Chinese sovereignty 22 years ago, has already created a counternarrative to the Communist Party’s birthday celebration. Around the world, the televised cuts from Tuesday’s military parade in Beijing — and fireworks in the evening — to another round of tear gas and gas bombs in Hong Kong seem inevitable.

National Day commemorates Oct. 1, 1949, when Mao appeared on the same balcony on the Gate of Heavenly Peace that Mr. Xi will on Tuesday and proclaimed the formation of the People’s Republic of China.

At the time, the civil war against the nationalists still raged, and the Communist Party had few resources to govern so large an impoverished and war-battered country. In one famous anecdote repeated by officials and state news media this past week, some of the 17 aircraft that took part in the first parade flew over Tiananmen Square a second time to make the air force seem bigger than it really was.

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A military parade was held each National Day from 1949 to 1959, but the tradition lapsed during the darkest years of Mao’s reign, which included the Great Famine and the Cultural Revolution. It resumed in 1984, overseen by Deng Xiaoping, the leader who began the reforms that opened up China’s economy.

“National Day parades and celebrations are carefully designed to communicate the self-image the regime wants Chinese people and the world to see,” said Susan L. Shirk, an expert on China at the University of California, San Diego, who was in the bleachers on Tiananmen Square during the 35th anniversary.

The party then wanted to promote capitalist policies to a generation raised on communist ones, so the parade featured banners with slogans like “Time Is Money” and floats promising material comforts. One float carried a 20-foot-tall chicken, another a refrigerator stocked with cold beer.

“Today,” Ms. Shirk added, “China has become more of a national security state.”

The 40th anniversary fell only months after the massacre that put down the student-led democracy movement on Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. The parade went on, but without the military hardware, “apparently because Beijing residents had seen enough weaponry in recent months,” The Times’s correspondent at the time, Nicholas D. Kristof, wrote.

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Tuesday’s parade will not be the biggest by the number of participants, military officials acknowledged at a briefing in Beijing this past week, but they emphasized it would include new weapons, all of them made in China, tested and ready to use.

Researchers scouring satellite photos of staging areas near Beijing have spotted a hypersonic drone and a new mobile intercontinental ballistic missile, the DF-41, which is capable of hurling multiple nuclear warheads toward any city in the United States.

The parade will showcase a military that is, according to foreign military analysts, more capable, more integrated and better equipped than at any point in Chinese history.

“In the past 70 years, the development and growth of the Chinese military is there for all to see,” the Defense Ministry’s spokesman, Senior Col. Wu Qian, said in the briefing, when asked if the display of weaponry was intended to send a message to potential adversaries. “We have neither the intention nor the need to flex muscle through military parades.”

CreditGilles Sabrié for The New York Times

He and the other officers emphasized the military’s obedience to the Communist Party leadership — as if it were in question — and its embrace of the military reorganization overseen in recent years by Mr. Xi, whose many titles include chairman of the Central Military Commission, despite some resistance in the ranks.

The preparations have transformed the city, turning it into a stage to glorify the country, the party and Mr. Xi himself. Nothing has been left to chance.

Even the troops involved are chosen not only according to physical standards — the male soldiers marching in formation should be 5 feet 9 to 6 feet 1 — but also for political ones, said Maj. Gen. Tan Min, executive deputy director of the Military Parade Joint Command and deputy chief of staff of the Central Theater Command.

They, too, face inconveniences. According to an article in The Global Times, troops were given disposal diapers to wear during rehearsals because there was no time allotted for bathroom breaks.

A salesman in Beijing, Zhang Sheng, said he very much looked forward to the parade. “I want to come on that day, but probably can’t because there are too many people.”

In fact, access to the parade is restricted to only those with passes. Mr. Zhang, 35, brought roller skates to ride along the parade route ahead of the festivities, but it was forbidden.