Thursday, October 1, 2009

BEIJING | To mark 60 years of communist rule, China put together its biggest-ever military parade: hundreds of thousands of marchers, batteries of goose-stepping soldiers and weaponry from drone missiles to amphibious assault vehicles.

China blocked off its city center for blocks around Tiananmen Square as it readied for Thursday’s celebration, asking residents to tune in to the events by television. Military convoys and floats moved through the city before dawn and took up positions east of Tiananmen ahead of the parade.

Festivities surrounding the founding of the People’s Republic of China will feature President Hu Jintao reviewing chanting troops, a flyover by domestically made fighter jets - including China’s first batch of female pilots - and tens of thousands of students flipping cards to make pictures.

Sixty floats celebrating last year’s Beijing Olympics, China’s manned space program and other symbols of progress will follow the military convoy along the parade route through Tiananmen Square.

The display is meant to underscore what the leadership calls the “revival of the great Chinese nation,” and the plans have stirred both patriotism and some unease at the pomp and firepower.

“China’s international standing has risen in an unprecedented way. We feel extremely proud of the increasing strength and prosperity of our motherland,” Premier Wen Jiabao said in a nationally televised speech on the anniversary’s eve.

The weather also cooperated Thursday morning, after overnight rain cleared away much of the smog that had hung over the city for the last two days, threatening to block out the flyover by more than 150 planes.

The air show will follow the military parade, which will feature more than 500 tanks and other pieces of equipment. Like all of China’s leaders before him, Mr. Hu will review the troops, standing in an open-top, domestically made Red Flag limousine.

The feel-good, if heavily scripted, moment is tapping into Chinese pride surrounding the country’s turnaround from the war-battered, impoverished state the communists took over in 1949 to the dynamic, third-largest world economy of today.

The buoyant mood glosses over the country’s gut-wrenching twists - such as the ruinous campaigns of revolutionary leader Mao Zedong that left tens of millions dead - as well as its current challenges: a widening gap between rich and poor, rampant corruption, severe pollution and ethnic uprisings in western areas of Tibet and Xinjiang.

In a sign of concern about the social ferment unleashed by free-market reforms, the government has suggested people in Beijing stay home to watch the parade on television.

Security in Beijing has been intensifying for weeks over worries that protests, which are common in China, or an overexuberant crowd might mar the ceremonies. Parts of central Beijing have been sealed off and businesses told to shut down, beginning Tuesday.

“How many hundreds of millions are being spent on the National Day troop review? Can you tell the taxpayers?” Li Huizhi, a small-business owner in southern Guangzhou city, wrote on his popular blog Sunday. “Aren’t the possibly tens of billions in money spent perhaps a bit of a disservice to the people? Because in today’s China, there are countless places more in need of this money.”

Explanations vary for why such elaborate festivities are being staged. Among them is the speculation that 60 is an auspicious number that plays well with Chinese, who say it traditionally represents the full life of a person. The country’s leadership has avoided mention of anything to do with superstition, though.

The government has customarily held military parades on 10th anniversaries. With China riding high in the world and feeling good about itself after the Beijing Olympics, the 60th was the Hu administration’s chance to score popularity points.

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