It was a celebration on a grand scale as the Communist Party marked its centenary in the heart of Beijing on Thursday, seeking to reinforce political messages and calling on young Chinese to take part in its vision for the future.
Security was tight as an audience of more than 70,000 filled Tiananmen Square – chosen from party organs, government bodies and research and scientific institutes, as well as dozens of people representing ethnic minorities who were flown in from across the country.
Carefully choreographed and of a similar scale to past National Day celebrations in the capital, the two-hour event started with a flyover of People’s Liberation Army warplanes and a 100-gun salute. There was no military parade but it featured thousands of performers, an honour guard and military band.
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Much attention was focused on party general secretary Xi Jinping and the former leaders who appeared, and did not appear, alongside him at the Gate of Heavenly Peace, from where Xi gave a spirited address overlooking the vast square.
For China watchers it was a rare opportunity for clues about the leadership and party elders – Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao, now white-haired, was there on the rostrum, as was former Politburo Standing Committee member Song Ping, who at 104 is older than the party itself.
But former leader Jiang Zemin, 94, and past premier Zhu Rongji, 92, were absent, prompting speculation about their health.
Almost no one was seen wearing masks during the event, but that did not mean the party was taking a casual approach to Covid-19 pandemic control.
For the media who attended it was a long and strict process to meet requirements – and a very early start. All journalists had to be fully vaccinated and take at least two nasal swab tests beforehand.
After spending a day at a designated quarantine hotel, they were bused to Tiananmen Square before daybreak on Thursday. Then, half an hour before the celebration – and live broadcast on state television – was due to begin, they were instructed to remove their masks, as others in the square had already done.
The event itself was meticulously planned for the television cameras, but there were moments of spontaneity from the audience, particularly as they reacted to Xi’s speech.
Applause and loud cheers broke out and even interrupted the Chinese leader as he vowed to fight against foreign aggression and pledged “complete reunification” of the mainland and Taiwan.
Xi closed his speech with his fist in the air, rousing the crowd with: “Long live the great, glorious and correct Communist Party of China. Long live the great, glorious and heroic Chinese people.”
The event was as much about looking back as it was about looking forward, with thousands of students from universities in Beijing part of the carefully assembled audience.
Younger faces also took centre stage in the square as they performed in a choir ahead of Xi’s speech. A group of primary, high school and college students – chosen from the Communist Youth League and Young Pioneers, both run by the party to recruit followers aged under 28 – recited a poem praising the party’s achievements.
The poem mentioned many of Xi’s signature policies and well-known remarks, ending with the message that these youthful voices were ready to walk down the path set out by the party as they repeated four times: “May the party be rest assured, I stand with [our] strong country!”
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