President Xi Jinping hailed China’s “irreversible” course from humiliated colony to great power at the centenary celebrations for the Chinese Communist Party on Thursday, in a speech reaching deep into history to remind patriots at home and rivals abroad of his nation’s — and his own — ascendancy.
Speaking above the giant portrait of Mao Zedong, which dominates Tiananmen Square, from the podium where the famous chairman proclaimed the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Xi said the “era of China being bullied is gone forever” praising the party for uplifting incomes and restoring national pride.
Drawing a line from the subjugation of the Opium Wars to the struggle to establish a socialist revolution in China, Xi said the party has brought about “national rejuvenation” lifting tens of millions from poverty and “altered the landscape of world development.”
Xi, wearing a ‘Mao-style’ jacket, added the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation has entered an irreversible historical course” and vowed to continue to build a “world-class” military to defend national interests.
In the summer of 1921 Mao and a clutch of Marxist-Leninist thinkers in Shanghai founded the party which has since morphed into one of the world’s most powerful political organisations.
It now counts around 95 million members, garnered over a century of war, famine and turmoil, and more recently a surge to superpower status butting up against western rivals, led by the US.
In a ceremony of pomp and patriotism, thousands of singers, backed by a marching band, belted out stirring choruses including “We Are the Heirs of Communism” and “Without the Communist Party there would be no New China” as maskless invitees cheered and waved flags in a packed Tiananmen Square.
A fly-by of helicopters in formation spelling ‘100’ — a giant hammer and sickle flag trailing — and a 100-gun salute followed, while young communists in unison pledged allegiance to the party.
Power, popularity and purges
Xi, whose speech braided the economic miracle of China with the longevity of the party, has cemented his eight-year rule through a personality cult, ending term limits and declining to anoint a successor.
He has purged rivals and crushed dissent — from Uyghur Muslims and online critics to pro-democracy protests on Hong Kong’s streets.
The party has pivoted to new challenges; using tech to renew its appeal for younger generations — 12.55 million members are now aged 30 or younger — while giving a communist finish to a consumer economy decorated by billionaire entrepreneurs.
On Beijing’s streets, praise for the party was effusive from those willing to speak to foreign media.
“We should thank the party and the motherland,” said Li Luhao, 19, a student at Beihang University performing in the celebration.
A man surnamed Wang, 42, said: “When I was a child there was a blackout for one hour every night and electricity shortages.”
“Now the streets are full of light. Food, clothes, education, traffic are all better.”
Xi has presented a defiant face to overseas rivals led by the US, revving up nationalist sentiment, batting back criticism of his government’s actions in Hong Kong, towards Taiwan and the treatment of the Uyghurs.
“The Chinese people will never allow any foreign forces to bully, oppress, or enslave us,” Xi said in his speech to great applause.
“Whoever wants to do so will face bloodshed in front of a Great Wall of steel built by more than 1.4 billion Chinese people.”
In its 100th year, the party has delivered a selective version of history through films, ‘Red’ tourism campaigns and books, which dance over the mass violence of the Cultural Revolution, famines and the Tiananmen Square student crackdown.
Instead, it has driven attention to China’s rebound from Covid-19, which first emerged in the central city of Wuhan, but has been virtually extinguished inside the country.
But reminders linger of the risks to stability.
Thursday also marks the 24th anniversary of the handover of former British colony Hong Kong to China, a date once met with mass demonstrations against Beijing.
One year ago, China imposed a draconian national security law on the city in response to huge — often violent — protests.
The measure has seen more than 64 activists charged, anti-China slogans criminalised and even the closure of a critical newspaper as the law sinks the once freewheeling city into what Amnesty International calls a “human rights emergency”.
Police have denied requests for demonstrations in the city, although several pro-democracy groups have vowed to defy a 10,000-strong police presence on the streets.
“The CCP can go to hell,” a Hong Konger who gave his name only as Ken told AFP.
“Anything that’s worthwhile, they destroy.”