BEIJING // Tens of thousands of people are today taking part in a military parade and march to mark the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China. A total of 200,000 soldiers and citizens, ranging from schoolchildren in colourful costumes to ethnic minorities, will pass alongside Tiananmen Square, where 60 years ago to the day Mao Zedong announced the creation of the nation.
But events in the Chinese capital are more a statement of this growing global economic power's increasing military prowess than a nostalgic look at the past six decades. The thousands of soldiers selected from the 2.3 million strong People's Liberation Army are expected to help make it China's largest military parade, even bigger than the one held a decade ago to mark the country's 50th anniversary.
As formidable as 56 units of high-stepping soldiers will be the military hardware. This will be of particular interest to overseas analysts keen to see what is now at the disposal of the world's most populous nation, which this year set a military budget of US$69 billion (Dh253bn), up 15.3 per cent on 2008. Speaking to state-run media, China's defence minister, Liang Guanglie, said the parade would demonstrate a "quantum leap" in the development of the country's weaponry. He said much of the equipment on display, ranging from fighter jets to missiles, radar systems, helicopters, tanks and armoured vehicles, would be "100 per cent China-made".
The carefully choreographed march - rehearsals began in December - is also aimed at projecting an image of ethnic and religious harmony, relevant after July's violence in Xinjiang province between Han Chinese, the country's largest ethnic group, and Muslim Uighurs that claimed scores of lives. Officials from China's several religious groups and "representatives" from the country's more than 50 recognised ethnic minorities will participate, according to Ding Gang, the secretary general of Beijing Islamic Association, which comes under the auspices of the state-sanctioned China Islamic Association.
The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said this week that tens of thousands of websites had been blocked by the Chinese authorities before today's events, particularly those linked to the minorities in Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia. "The electronic great wall has never been as consolidated as it is now - proving that the Chinese government is not so sure of its record," the press rights group said.
The march will pass along Chang'an Avenue, which runs east to west alongside Tiananmen Square, itself the scene of some of the most turbulent events of China's history and which is still overlooked by a portrait of Mao. This time, proceedings will be watched by Hu Jintao, the president, who is reported to have ordered a special 5.8-metre stretch limousine for the celebrations. The three-hour parade during the day will be followed by two hours of entertainment and fireworks in the evening, with events likely to rival the opening ceremony of last year's Beijing Olympics as a spectacle.
Preparations have taken over the capital in recent weeks, with weekend rehearsals having forced the cordoning off of parts of the city. Roads across Beijing are lined with red, orange, blue and purple banners along with large red and yellow advertising billboards featuring the official 60th anniversary logo. There are elaborate floral arrangements and roadside signs in the shape of the number 60, while two large screens have been set up in Tiananmen Square. Similar displays are also prominent in other major cities, including Shanghai.
Along the route, subway stations have been refurbished, monuments repaired and cleaned and some streets widened, reports say. But many of these roads and stations will be closed to those members of the public not among the 30,000 people invited to watch the parade. People have been advised by the authorities to stay at home and watch the proceedings on television. The national television station, CCTV, has commissioned a host of special programmes and events, and more than half a dozen of its channels are broadcasting today's proceedings in several languages, including Arabic.
About 4,500 journalists in the capital will cover the event, about 1,300 of them from overseas. The authorities have flown in journalists from 53 countries, including several Arab countries, and many countries in Africa, where the country has growing economic interests and influence. The state-run China Daily reported this week that the Beijing airport would be shut down for the three hours of the parade, with a total of 180 flights affected.
Today's celebrations will take place beneath clear skies, if China's efforts to control the weather prove successful. State media have reported that 18 aircraft will spray chemicals to disperse clouds, and efforts to ensure good weather will be fine-tuned using the latest satellite images. Local media have reported that 260 soldiers and 48 "fog-clearing vehicles" will be deployed to help influence the weather.
"It is the first time in Chinese history that artificial weather modification on such [a] large scale has been attempted," Cui Lianqing, an air force meteorologist, told China's Global Times. "If any unexpected situation appears, we are prepared to manipulate the weather as best we can," Guo Hu, head of the Beijing Meteorological Bureau, said in a press release reported by China Daily. firstname.lastname@example.org
* With additional reporting by AFP