The crowd waved flags, sang and cheered in made-for-television unison. Troops marched and jets flew overhead in perfect formations. And Xi Jinping, clad in a Mao suit for the centenary of China’s Communist Party, warned rivals that attempts to hobble China’s rise would be met with a “Great Wall of steel.”
Mr. Xi, the strongest Chinese leader in generations, struck a defiant tone in a speech in Beijing on Thursday that celebrated 100 years since the party was formed by revolutionaries gathered in a colonial quarter of Shanghai. The speech, like the entire day, was laden with symbols intended to show that China and its ruling party would not tolerate foreign obstruction on its path to becoming a superpower.
At times, Mr. Xi’s pugnacious words seemed aimed as much at Washington as at the hundreds of millions of Chinese who watched on their televisions and smartphones. The biggest applause from the handpicked, Covid-screened audience on Tiananmen Square came when he declared that China would not be pushed around.
“The Chinese people will never allow foreign forces to bully, oppress or enslave us,” he said. “Whoever nurses delusions of doing that will crack their heads and spill blood on the Great Wall of steel built from the flesh and blood of 1.4 billion Chinese people.”
Mr. Xi’s address was one of the most anticipated of his nearly nine years in power and was all the more significant because he seeks to extend his rule. The celebration was Mr. Xi’s chance to cement a place, at least implicitly, on a dais of era-defining Chinese leaders, above all Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.
Mr. Xi has sought to portray himself as a transformative leader guiding China into a new era of global strength and rejuvenated one-party rule. And the stagecraft was focused on conveying a modern, powerful nation, at ease and secure while much of the world still struggles with the pandemic.
He trumpeted the party’s success in tamping down Covid-19, reducing poverty and firmly quashing dissent in Hong Kong, the former British colony. With splashes of bellicose rhetoric, he dismissed challenges from abroad, asserting that Beijing had little appetite for what it saw as sanctimonious preaching.
“We’ll never accept insufferably arrogant lecturing from those ‘master teachers!’” Mr. Xi said, drawing a roar from the seated crowd of party members, schoolchildren and veterans. Rumbles of distant thunder punctuated Mr. Xi’s remarks, and dozens of large, red Chinese flags hoisted around the square flapped noisily in the wind.
As is customary in such speeches, Mr. Xi did not explicitly cite China’s tensions with the United States and other rivals. But his effort to portray unity carried an unmistakable meaning as Beijing faces new challenges abroad.
The Biden administration has cast the United States as leading a global struggle to defend democratic ideals against the spread of China’s model of authoritarianism. President Biden has worked quickly to rally Western allies to press China over human rights and tensions in the South China Sea. Beijing has been especially incensed by Western sanctions over Hong Kong and the western region of Xinjiang, two places where Mr. Xi has tightened the party’s control with draconian measures.
“His speech clearly hinted at the United States, the audience in China won’t miss that,” Deng Yuwen, a former editor of a Communist Party newspaper who now lives in the United States, said by telephone. “His other message that stood out was that the party is the representative of the people’s and the whole country’s interests — nobody can try to split the party from the nation; they’re a unified whole.”
The theme of a party and nation united behind Mr. Xi will remain prominent in the lead-up to a Communist Party congress late next year, at which he is expected to gain a third five-year term as the party’s leader. That step would break with the expectation, set by his predecessor, Hu Jintao, that Chinese leaders stay in power for two terms. Mr. Xi’s speech will now be studied and acclaimed by party officials as part of the rituals that ensure they stay obedient.
“This was not a speech by a leader who is planning on stepping down from power anytime soon,” said Jude Blanchette, who holds the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The extraordinary pomp and circumstance was designed to say: The Chinese Communist Party is strong, unified, and it isn’t going anywhere.”
For months, the party has flooded the country’s airwaves and plastered its newspapers with anniversary propaganda. Mr. Xi and other officials have traveled to historic sites to pay homage to the party’s revolutionary leaders. It has tightened security around the country, confining dissidents and stationing police officers and neighborhood volunteers to keep watch across the capital for weeks.
Alleys and overpasses in Beijing have been decked in red party banners. Chinese state television is scheduled to show more than a hundred television dramas celebrating the party, many of them depictions of revolutionary heroes. A light show on the riverfront in Shanghai has flashed the slogan, “There would be no new China without the Communist Party.” Another light display shone the Communist hammer and sickle onto clouds over Shenzhen, a flashily commercial city in the south.
Beijing’s intensive preparations for this anniversary pointed to how crucial controlling public memory is to China’s leaders, perhaps above all Mr. Xi, a leader who has cited his family roots in the party’s revolutionary heritage and his disdain for liberal values. Predictably, he made no mention in his speech of China’s setbacks over the decades of Communist Party rule, such as Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the deadly crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.
In Mr. Xi’s depiction of modern Chinese history, only the Communist Party had the ideas and organization that could rescue the country from imperialists and domestic exploitation.
- Behind the Takeover of Hong Kong: One year ago, the city’s freedoms were curtailed with breathtaking speed. But the clampdown was years in the making, and many signals were missed.
- One Year Later in Hong Kong: Neighbors are urged to report on one another. Children are taught to look for traitors. The Communist Party is remaking the city.
- Mapping Out China’s Post-Covid Path: Xi Jinping, China’s leader, is seeking to balance confidence and caution as his country strides ahead while other places continue to grapple with the pandemic.
- A Challenge to U.S. Global Leadership: As President Biden predicts a struggle between democracies and their opponents, Beijing is eager to champion the other side.
- ‘Red Tourism’ Flourishes: New and improved attractions dedicated to the Communist Party’s history, or a sanitized version of it, are drawing crowds ahead of the party’s centennial.
Mr. Xi paid respects to Mao, Deng and other past leaders, but the real focus of his speech was clear. He highlighted the country’s achievements since he took office in 2012: eradicating poverty, achieving greater economic prosperity and building a strong military. He used his longtime catchphrase, “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” 21 times.
“He didn’t mention himself, but his strong implication is that he himself is responsible for much of these achievements,” said Willy Wo-Lap Lam, an adjunct professor at the Center for China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “It’s almost like a stump speech, arguing why he should remain the supreme leader and commander for, perhaps at least, the coming 10 years.”
In his ambitions, Mr. Xi has been likened to another authoritarian leader, Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. But Mr. Xi’s power is much more closely wedded to the vast party organization that he leads, and in his speech he called for obedience and sacrifice from its members.
The 95 million members of the Communist Party of China are found in every corner of society, from the country’s richest man, Jack Ma, to virtually every village. And Mr. Xi swiped at critics who have said that the party and the Chinese people should not be treated as a united whole.
“Anyone who wants to try to divide the Chinese Communist Party from the Chinese people will never get their way,” Mr. Xi said.
He won more applause when he reiterated the party’s claim over Taiwan, the self-governing island democracy of over 20 million people. China wants peaceful unification, Mr. Xi said, but its patience should not be tested. “Nobody should underestimate the staunch determination, firm will and powerful capacity of the Chinese people to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Despite Mr. Xi’s warnings to potential adversaries, the centenary celebrations on Thursday did not feature a military parade. A senior officer had said earlier that military personnel would stay at their posts to “safeguard the peace and security of the motherland.” Still, squadrons of helicopters flew over Tiananmen Square, carrying red banners and forming the figure 100, followed by fighter jets in a perfect array. Mr. Xi repeatedly stressed his determination to build up China’s military.
“A strong power needs a strong military, and only a strong military can bring a secure country,” he said.
Mr. Xi has been building on a rise of public confidence since China suppressed the coronavirus relatively quickly last year while the United States, Britain and other democracies suffered waves of deaths. But the country must tackle challenges, such as an aging population that could slow growth. Mr. Xi suggested that the solution to any problem demanded staying with the party.
“Long live the Chinese Communist Party, great, glorious and correct,” he said at the end of his speech. “Long live the Chinese people, great, glorious and heroic.”
Steven Lee Myers contributed reporting. Liu Yi, You Li, Claire Fu, Albee Zhang and Joy Dong contributed research.