China’s President Xi Jinping opened celebrations on Tuesday to mark 70 years of Communist rule vowing that “no force” would be able to shake the country, as a parade of massed troops and military hardware showcased Chinese muscle in the face of an unprecedented challenge to its authority in Hong Kong.
“There is no force that can shake the foundation of this great nation,” Xi told invited delegates as he stood at the Tiananmen Square gate where Mao Zedong declared the People’s Republic of China in October 1949.
“No force will be able to stop the steady march forward of the Chinese people and Chinese nation.”
Authorities in Beijing tightened security in the city ahead of the invitation-only event, cleaning up neighbourhoods, banning dogs of a certain size from the streets and ordering birds caged. Ordinary people had to stay at home if they wanted to see the event, which was broadcast live on national television.
After his speech, Xi, the country’s most powerful leader since Mao, reviewed the troops from the rear of an open-topped Red Flag or Hongqi limousine, nodding occasionally to the personnel before him.
New weapons – including a hypersonic ballistic nuclear missile capable of breaching anti-missile defences to reach the United States – were rolled out across the tarmac, and soldiers marched in unison across the vast square.
The display of military might comes as Xi faces a series of challenges that threaten the economy and risk stability at home.
“The CCP is anxious,” Xun Zhou, an expert in Chinese politics at Britain’s University of Essex, wrote in a paper in The Conversation.
“Alongside continued unrest in Hong Kong and tensions with Taiwan, China’s economy is flagging, the wealth gap growing and health scandals increasing. Fewer and fewer people in China trust the current leadership.”
There is also pressure internationally, amid a trade war with the US, the detention of two Canadians in the wake of the arrest of a senior Huawei executive in Canada, and horror at the mass detention of ethnic Uighurs in the far western province of Xinjiang. China says people are being held in vocational training centres.
Mocking the government
But it was in Hong Kong, where protesters were aiming to disrupt the celebratory mood.
Al Jazeera’s Scott Heidler said protesters were eager to use the occasion to drive their message home.
“It’s a very, very important day generally for the People’s Republic of China but especially for Xi Jinping,” he said. “He has really pushed forward in his leadership this ‘one China’ policy and what we’ve seen here in Hong Kong with these protesters is going against that.”
The streets were quiet on Tuesday morning with many shops opting to close and police issuing ominous warnings of trouble, as the city’s traditional flag-raising ceremony was moved indoors.
Hong Kong has been embroiled since June in the worst unrest since it reverted to Chinese rule in 1997, with riot police and protesters engaged in running battles on the streets.
Demonstrations began on Tuesday afternoon, as thousands of black-clad protesters began to march in defiance of a police decision to reject a permit for the rally.
“Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong,” they chanted. Some of the protesters torched the Chinese national flag.
Hong Kong’s acting leader – Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung – said at the reception that the city had become “unrecognisable” because of the protests.
Xi referenced the ‘one country, two systems’ policy under which Hong Kong enjoys freedoms unseen on the mainland in his speech, stressing it was crucial for the “long-term prosperity and stability” of both Hong Kong and Macau, formerly a Portuguese colony.
Guy Saint-Jacques, Canada’s Ambassador to China between 2012 and 2016, told Al Jazeera that “unity” remained one of China’s paramount goals.
“The problem with Hong Kong is that China doesn’t know how to handle the protests,” Saint-Jacques said from Montreal. “They don’t have a habit of democracy and they don’t know how it works. (And) they worry that the contestation in Hong Kong could spread to the mainland.”
The Communist Party has held onto power for seven decades, despite the deaths of tens of millions of people as a result of Mao’s Great Leap Forward, and the violent upheaval of the Cultural Revolution that only came to an end when Mao died in 1976.
A more open economic policy initiated by Deng Xiaoping, who followed Mao as paramount leader, helped kickstart growth and development, but the Communist Party has maintained its hold on power, sometimes resorting to force, most notoriously in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Embattled Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam was pictured smiling alongside Communist Party grandees and other guests in the square on Monday watching the air display, march past and a showcase of the country’s newest weapons.
After 17 weeks of protests in Hong Kong, Victor Gao, vice-president at the Centre for China and Globalisation in Beijing, said it was up to Lam and her government to “step up and do their job” in addressing the situation in the territory.
“If mainland China was really interfering in the situation in Hong Kong there would be no more violence at all,” he told.
Xi’s call for unity was also directed at Taiwan, the self-ruled island where the defeated nationalists set up a government in 1949.
People on the island, which China has vowed to retake by force if necessary, appeared to have little interest in the celebrations on the mainland, even with the events in Hong Kong and Taiwan’s own elections due in January.
“Frankly, there is no “reunifying” since Taiwan is an independent country,” said Joyce Kao, a 31-year-old marketing manager who said she had never watched the celebration and never would.
As expected, Xi referred again in Tuesday’s address to his “Chinese dream”; his plan to rejuvenate China and return the country to what he sees as its rightful place in the world.
“Today has to be understood mainly in terms of China’s domestic politics,” said Geoff Raby, who was Australia’s ambassador to China between 2007 and 2011.
“This is all very much about reaffirming the leading role of the Communist Party, Xi’s role at the top of the Communist Party and the extent to which the Communist Party is responsible for building a strong, prosperous and internationally-respected country.”
With additional reporting by Violet Law in Hong Kong and Randy Muliyanto in Taipei.