China celebrates 70 years of Communist rule on Tuesday with a parade of tanks, missiles and troops; a muscular display of the country’s rising superpower status even as it faces an unprecedented challenge to its authority in seething Hong Kong.
Authorities in Beijing have closed roads, banned the flying of kites, and shut some bars as they tightened security for an event celebrating China’s journey from a country broken by war and poverty to being the world’s second-largest economy.
The enormous military parade will roll across Tiananmen Square under the gaze of President Xi Jinping, the country’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, who founded the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949.
New weapons – including a hypersonic drone and an intercontinental ballistic missile that can reach the United States – are expected to make their public debut, according to Paris-based analysts.
“Unity is iron and steel. Unity is a source of strength,” Xi said in a speech on Monday evening.
But behind the projection of strength at the tightly choreographed event, Xi is facing a clutch of challenges that are testing his ability to maintain economic and political stability at home and abroad.
“The party hopes that this occasion will add to its legitimacy and rally support at a time of internal and external challenges,” Adam Ni, China researcher at Macquarie University in Sydney, told AFP.
US trade war negotiations have dragged on, and African swine fever has ravaged the country’s pig supply, sending pork prices soaring.
But the major headache is Hong Kong, where pro-democracy protesters plan to grab the spotlight from Beijing on Tuesday with their own rally against what they see as the erosion of their special freedoms.
Mocking the government
On Monday night they formed human chains using green frog soft toys which have come to symbolise the summer’s protests around Victoria Harbour.
The frog, named “Pepe” has become a widely popular protest meme in Hong Kong, appearing in endless posters and smartphone messaging stickers, even with the features of the territory’s leader Carrie Lam superimposed on its face.
“We use this frog in our communication, we sort of mock the government”, said Dorothy Chan, who took part in the protest.
Hong Kong has been embroiled for months in the worst unrest since it reverted to Chinese rule in 1997, with riot police and protesters engaged in running battles on the streets.
Authorities have rejected a permit submitted by protesters for a planned march, but demonstrations are expected across the city regardless.
Police said on Monday they expected a “very serious violent attack” to mark the anniversary while the metro operator MTR closed some flash-point stations, while several large shopping malls announced they would close.
In an arrangement similar to that for the July 1 anniversary of the city’s handover from Britain to China – when protesters ransacked the legislature – guests attending the traditional flag-raising ceremony will be moved indoors.
The change is “to ensure that the flag-raising ceremony can be carried out in a solemn and orderly manner,” the city’s Home Affairs Department told Reuters.
In an apparent olive branch, Xi promised on Monday to continue to “fully and faithfully implement” the one country, two systems policy under which Hong Kong residents enjoy freedoms unseen on the mainland
Al Jazeera’s Scott Heidler said the authorities did not want the events overshadowed, while 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 government of embattled Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam has already cancelled the annual fireworks display over the harbour, citing public safety concerns.
Lam left for Beijing on Monday to celebrate China’s birthday on the mainland, where she will join Communist Party grandees and other invited guests to watch 15,000 soldiers march across Tiananmen, 580 pieces of military equipment rumble across the square and 160 aircraft roar overhead.
“Beijing wants to highlight its military modernisation, political unity, and determination to protect its interests,” Ni said.
The Communist Party has repeatedly defied the odds to remain in power for seven decades.
Under Mao, tens of millions of people died during the disastrous Great Leap Forward, and the country was plunged into violent chaos during the decade-long Cultural Revolution.
After Mao died in 1976, the party launched the reform and opening-up policy under paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, starting decades of breakneck growth and development.
But the Communist Party of China (CCP) retained a stranglehold on power, sending troops to end the biggest challenge to its rule in 1989 when pro-democracy protesters occupied Tiananmen Square.
When Xi takes the podium to address the nation at the parade on Tuesday, he is likely to invoke his “Chinese dream”, the “rejuvenation” of a nation that is seeking what it sees as a return to former glory.
The Party wants to show on Tuesday “that under the leadership of the CCP, China is making strides towards becoming a rich and powerful country”, said Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
The Chinese leader has made clear that be believes only the Communist Party can make the country realise its dream – with him at the helm.