9.35 am: The synchronised claps from a military band folding up small chairs rang out at Tiananmen Square. Men in dark blue uniforms stacked the chairs to one end, picked up their instruments and readied for the moment they had been rehearsing for weeks. They would remain in position for at least the next three hours, enthralling the audience with tunes including ‘March of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’.
There was still 30 minutes for President Xi Jinping to assume the rostrum above the Gate of Heavenly Peace and declare open the 70th anniversary celebrations for the founding of the People’s Republic of China. The audience was being prepped for the big day. “Yi, er, san,” shouted volunteers.
“Oooohhh,” came the reply, followed by claps and flag-waving. People posed for photographs with Mao’s portrait in the background, showing off their red invitations and Chinese flags.
Minutes before 10 am, the band began playing what a man in the audience described as a “song we play on an occasion like this”. Xi arrived soon after and with him were Premier Li Keqiang, former Presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao as well as senior Communist Party members. Li gave the word to start the canon salute, a group of soldiers walked over to the flagpost across in the square and the national flag of China slowly climbed high in the Beijing smog.
In an over eight-minute speech from the rostrum decorated with large red lanterns and red flags, Xi said: “Today, a socialist China is standing in the east of the world, and there is no force that can shake the foundation of this great nation. No force can stop the Chinese people and the Chinese nation forging ahead.”
The audience met this with applause. “Forging ahead, we will remain committed to the leadership of the Communist Party of China, and put people first,” he continued.
Xi also said China must uphold principles of ‘Peaceful Reunification’ and ‘One Country, Two Systems’ and maintain prosperity and stability in Hong Kong and Macao. All Chinese sons and daughters, he said, should “continue to strive for the motherland’s complete reunification”.
He was then driven out in an open-roof Red Flag limousine, driving east on Chang’an Avenue to review and greet the People’s Liberation Army’s formations. “Tóngzhìmen hao tóngzhìmen xinku le (‘Comrades, salute to you!’ and ‘Comrades, thanks for your hard work!’)” he greeted every unit through a microphone. “Hail to you, Chairman!” and “We work hard to serve the people!” the soldiers replied.
For the next 80 minutes, after Xi returned to the rostrum, China showed off its military might. The bigger the ballistic missiles like the hypersonic missile DF-100, the louder the cheers from the audience. Helicopters overhead traced the number 70 onto the sky.
Closer to noon, large portraits of former presidents were driven past as part of the civilian parade. One group rode bicycles wearing clothing that was common in China decades ago, later groups highlighted the opening up of the economy in 1980s, the return of Hong Kong and Macao to China in the late 1990s. When it came to Xi’s years, strides in technology appeared to define this new China.