Beijing, China – Wu Xiaoliang gushes about the tanks and missiles that are set to roll through the streets of central Beijing on October 1 to mark 70 years of Communist rule, in what will be China’s largest-ever military parade and a show of the country’s strength.
The 32-year-old horticulturist is a fan of a popular military drama on television, The King of Land Battle, which she watches together with her mother-in-law in their home in the centre of Beijing.
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Although the parade will be just a few kilometres away, they will watch it on TV as well. Public access to the festivities has been banned, with the exception of the civilians involved in the parade.
In the weeks leading up to the celebrations, parts of the Chinese capital have come to a standstill during the rehearsals. Security and access to foreign websites have been further tightened, and residents in 22 million mega-city appear both excited and watchful.
The Communist Party is set to showcase legions of troops marching in lockstep and its latest weaponry. Military official Cai Zhijun said this was China’s largest military parade in decades.
October 1 marks the founding of the People’s Republic of China by Mao Zedong after the Communists won the civil war in 1949 and defeated the nationalists. The last time China held a parade on a similar scale was in 2015 when 12,000 troops marched to commemorate the end of World War II Two.
The event comes at a sensitive time for the party and its leader, President Xi Jinping. China’s economy is growing at its slowest pace in decades amid a trade war with the United States.
In Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous city controlled by Beijing residents have protesting there since June, demanding greater democracy. The government’s policies in its western Xinjiang region also came under fire at the United Nations on Tuesday.
Pigeons caged, dogs banned
But the bother the rehearsals have caused and the questions about the country’s current “struggles” – as Xi has called them – are largely secondary for Beijing residents.
“Neither family nor self is more important than country,” said Ma, a 56-year-old cook who lives in Beijing’s traditional alleyways, echoing the party’s socialist values. “We have to first consider the big event.”
Hotels near the historic Chang’An Avenue have notified travellers about 12-hour lockdowns during rehearsals. Residents from buildings overlooking the avenue have been denied access to their homes.
Other parts of the city have been cleaned and spruced up.
Neither family nor self is more important than country
Makeshift barracks for security guards have been removed, unsightly electric cables kept out of sight.
And Beijing’s many pigeon owners have been told to keep their birds in cages. Authorities have reminded dog owners that they are not allowed to walk canines taller than 35cm in the centre. Some residents have taken to walking their labrador retrievers under the cover of darkness.
The way the preparations have been conducted reflects China’s restrictive social and political environment, said independent political analyst Wu Qiang.
“Stability and safety are overwhelming,” he said. “There is no way that regular people can become involved in this big celebration. It is a celebration for Xi himself. Citizens have been completely excluded.”
‘Free, rich, strong’
Luciano Li, a 27-year-old nurse, said he didn’t mind waiting in traffic because he was excited about the preparations. Li was walking along Beijing’s commercial Nanluoguxiang Street wearing a traditional Chinese robe that has become popular with young people recently.
Li said showcasing China’s military arsenal would inspire pride in Chinese citizens as they could see how much the country had progressed over the years.
Several people echoed the government’s official narrative. That the Communist Party having made China free and prosperous, was now strong under Xi. The headwinds Beijing faced was just resistance to China’s rise, they said.
“In a sense, the United States is threatened by Chinese power, so (the trade war) is a good thing. It shows our place in the world,” said Li, who had studied in Japan.
Some Beijing residents described Hong Kong’s protesters as “naughty children” echoing Chinese propaganda, which has painted the protesters as ungrateful children.
Reuben, a 36-year-old videogame designer who was visiting from Shenzhen, a city bordering Hong Kong, said the protests were caused by a conflict between two worldviews: “Chinese thinking” versus Hong Kong’s “Westernised view.”
He said that the tensions were a “small problem that will be dealt with.”
Xi’s tightening grip
Internet service has at times become spottier, and virtual private networks (VPNs), used by journalists and businesses to circumvent China’s “Great Firewall,” have been disrupted, as they often are before key political events.
Hu Xijin, the editor of the state-run tabloid Global Times, complained last week on Chinese social media about the internet restrictions disrupting his work. His post was later taken down.
Expressing discontent with the government has become increasingly rare, both among public figures and regular citizens, as Xi has tightened his grip on power.
While raving about the parade, Zhao, a 47-year-old landlord, also complained briefly about authorities forcing him to demolish the rooftop of his traditional hutong home because it was “20 centimetres” too high.
But he stopped himself before he could go further.
“We can only say the good things about China,” he said.