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60 Years of Celebrating the Creation of the People's Republic

A review of Chinese national day celebrations since 1949.
September 24, 2009
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This article is based on the September 9 and September 16 issues of Talking Points, the USC U.S.-China Institute's weekly newsletter.

October 1st is China’s national day and this year marks the 60th anniversary since the 1949 founding of the People’s Republic. In Chinese culture, 60 has long been seen as a special

 
Tang Guoqiang is Mao and Zhang Ziyi (center, back) is a women's representative in The Founding (China Film Group)

milestone and in earlier times a person’s 60th birthday was the first one celebrated by one’s family. So it is no surprise that this year’s national day is receiving particular attention.

Forty “tribute films” began screening on August 20. Jianguo daye (建国大业 or “The Founding) features many of China’s best known stars and will be released on September 17. Two thousand prints of the film have been produced – nearly one for every two commercial movie screens across the country. Many of those going to see these films will do so for free. Last week Beijing cinemas began passing out a free ticket for every purchased ticket.

Millions will watch these films and will also tune in for television coverage of China’s national day parade. Last month’s dress rehearsal involved some 200,000 people.

 

On September 12, Zhou Yongkang 周永康, one of China’s top leaders, said China’s current security campaign is a “people’s war.” Zhou, one of the nine members of the Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee, said that maintaining the social stability in and near Beijing in the run-up to the October 1 national day celebrations was the party-state’s central concern. Here we note sixty years of marking the establishment of the People's Republic.
 

 
Movie theater promoting The Founding. Photo by felibrilu (Creative Commons).
 
Armored vehicle on Beijing streets during 60th anniversary pararde rehearsal. Photo by gadgetdan (Creative Commons)

 

 

 
 Mao Zedong, Tiananmen, 1949

On September 21, 1949, Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong 毛泽东 addressed the first session of the People’s Republic’s provisional government saying, “Ours will no longer be a nation subject to insult and humiliation. We have stood up.” He went on to note that the PRC’s state system, the people's democratic dictatorship, would be used to protect the revolution against domestic and foreign enemies. Ten days later, Mao stood atop Tiananmen (the Gate of Heavenly Peace) and announced that he would also serve as state president and chair of the central military commission while Zhou Enlai 周恩来 would be premier and Zhu De 朱德 would head the army. He concluded by saying that the new government would establish diplomatic relations with any country “willing to observe the principles of equality, mutual benefit, and mutual respect of territorial integrity and sovereignty.”

The 1949 military parade that would become the center of China’s largest national day celebrations lasted some three hours and featured more than 16,000 soldiers. The 1950 parade was even longer. By then fighting on the Korean peninsula had been going on for three months and China’s government was preparing to send forces to support North Korea. This effort formally began on October 8 and the ensuing struggle is known in China as the war to “resist U.S. (aggression) and aid (North) Korea” (抗美援朝). Military parades were an annual ritual through the rest of the decade.

Two enormous structures, the Great Hall of the People and the Museum of Chinese History,

 

 

 
Monument to the People's Heroes,
2009 photo by Swamibu (Creative Commons)

were built in time for the 1959 anniversary. Constructed in an astonishing ten months, they flank Tiananmen Square. And the massive Monument to the People’s Hero’s was erected in the center of the square. Weighing 10,000 tons and completed in 1958, the monument features relief sculptures of key moments in China’s official revolutionary history. These include the Opium War, the Taiping Rebellion, and the May 4th Movement. “Eternal glory to the people’s hero’s” in Mao’s calligraphy is inscribed on the north facing side of the monument, directly opposite China’s national flag and Mao’s portrait on Tiananmen.

Those 1959 celebrations occurred as the Great Leap Forward, Mao’s effort to launch a production revolution in China through mass mobilization and the creation of communes was collapsing. Peng Dehuai 彭德怀, the hero of the Korean War and the man who presided over the 1958 national day parade, confronted Mao at a June 1959 CCP conference. Peng argued that the Great Leap Forward was a disaster. He was soon removed as Defense Minister. Lin Biao 林彪 took over as Defense Minister and officiated at the 1959 parade. “Long Live the Great Leap Forward” was prominent among the slogans shouted during the parade and celebrations, but in many places food was or would soon be in short supply. Official histories put the blame on bad weather and ruthless Soviet demands for grain shipments, but bad policies and practices exacerbated the problems and cost lives. Twenty to thirty million people starved to death or died of malnutrition-related diseases between 1959 and 1962.

In 1960, the government announced a policy of frugality and declared that national day would henceforth be marked with small celebrations every five years and major celebrations, including military parades, every ten years.

By the time of the 1969 20th anniversary celebrations, China was again in the midst of a tumultuous political movement. Mao’s Cultural Revolution was in full fervor. To dislodge those he considered “revisionist” enemies, he encouraged young people to bombard the headquarters, to challenge officials of the CCP he headed. Liu Shaoqi 刘少奇, a member of the CCP Politboro since 1931 and PRC president since 1959, was Mao’s top target. He was publicly humiliated and expelled from the CCP in 1968. He spent national day 1969 in prison and died of medical neglect a month later.

Chinese news coverage of the parade celebrated Mao’s good health and noted he smiled and waved at the marching soldiers and the assembled masses. Mao’s “close comrade in arms” and designated successor, Lin Biao, addressed the crowd. Lin was a chief promoter of the Mao personality cult that then consumed China. He had issued the collection of quotations known in the West as “The Little Red Book.” Homemade badges with Mao’s image had first surfaced in the late 1930s in the hills of central China and some factories turned out badges in the 1950s, but production exploded during the Cultural Revolution. On national day, perhaps half a million people, everyone except for Mao himself, wore Mao badges to the Tiananmen celebrations.

 

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According to the plan laid out in 1960, the government should have marked the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic in grand fashion. On October 1, 1979, however, Deng Xiaoping 邓小平 and his supporters were busy consolidating their hold on power. The army had been forced into a hasty retreat from foreign soil. The difficulties and potential risks of a large scale public celebration were too great.
 

Chairman Mao Mausoleum, completed in 1977 on Tiananmen Square's north-south axis. 2009 photo by Andy Hares (Creative Commons).

Less than a month after Mao’s September 1976 death, his chosen successor Hua Guofeng used an elite military unit to lock up Mao’s widow and her associates (the so-called “Gang of Four”). Meanwhile Deng managed to return as a dominant force. In December 1978, Deng replaced Hua Guofeng 华国锋 as chair of the party’s Central Military Commission and the party formally declared that the country’s central task was economic development. This was to be achieved by modernizing China’s agriculture, industry, technology, and defense, the so-called Four Modernizations. At the same time, the U.S. and China announced they would establish formal diplomatic relations and American companies such as Boeing and Coca-Cola announced plans to sell in China.

Shortly before the December meetings where Communist Party leaders confirmed the new political and economic objectives, ordinary citizens had begun posting their own views on a wall in central Beijing. The most prominent of these was Wei Jingsheng’s 魏京生 call for a Fifth Modernization, democracy. The government began arresting some of the most outspoken petitioners and critics in January. This didn’t affect the success of Deng’s one week visit to the U.S. In mid-February 1979, China invaded Vietnam to “teach it a lesson” following that country’s seizure of Cambodia. The invasion was met with fierce resistance and Chinese forces withdrew after a month.

Meanwhile, in some areas of China, commune and production brigade-centered production was giving was to household-centered farming. In towns and cities, some individuals began offering services and opening small businesses. The now three decade long economic reform and opening period had begun. In 1980, Deng pushed Hua Guofeng completely aside. He made Hu Yaobang 胡耀邦 the party’s general secretary and Zhao Ziyang 赵紫阳 premier. The Gang of Four was finally put on trial, a televised spectacle. And the Party officially condemned some of Mao’s decisions (a categorical rejection of Hua’s assertion that “whatever” Mao said and did was correct). Some of Mao’s targets, living and dead, were “rehabilitated.” The Party said it was merely following Mao’s dictum of “seeking truth from facts” and it asserted that Mao’s contributions outweighed his shortcomings. Unlike China’s earlier rulers, the chairman himself remained at the center. His mausoleum was erected in Tiananmen Square.

By 1984, Deng and his team had pushed reform nationwide. Production was up and living

 
Sprucing up Chang'an Boulevard and Tiananmen.
 
Waiting for the festivities to begin.
 
Mao Zedong, Zhu De, Zhou Enlai, and Liu Shaoqi busts
to be highlighted in the parade.
 
Tanks were part of the military parade. National Day features giant portraits of Marx, Engels, Sun Yatsen, Stalin, and Lenin.
 
Float highlights the importance of the family planning program.
 
Fireworks brighten the sky.
 USCI's 1984 national day photos by Clayton Dube

standards in many places were improving. The gap between rural and urban household incomes had even shrunk. The median urban household income was 2.6 times larger than the rural median in 1978. In 1983, it was 1.7 times larger. Three-quarters of China’s one billion people lived in the countryside. Outside investment, especially from Hong Kong and overseas Chinese communities was beginning. U.S. President Ronald Reagan visited in spring 1984. Speaking in Anchorage on his way back, Reagan described China as a “so-called Communist” country. In September, British and Chinese negotiators hammered out an agreement for China to regain control over Hong Kong in 1997.

To mark the transformation underway, China’s leaders pulled out all stops for the October 1 celebration. Roads were paved, walls painted, Tiananmen was spruced up, thousands of flowers were put on display and hundreds of thousands were mobilized. Deng Xiaoping reviewed the troops from an open Red Flag limousine and gave the principal speech. There was one unscripted moment that seemed to capture the spirit of the moment. A group of students carried a banner saying “Xiaoping Ni hao!” (Xiaoping, Hello!). Television and a feature movie, The Big Parade, took the celebration across the country.

Similar plans for the PRC’s fortieth anniversary in 1989 had to be jettisoned. Student demonstrations in winter 1986 resulted in the decision by Deng and other old guard leaders to dismiss Hu Yaobang as CCP general secretary. Hu’s successor, Zhao Ziyang, broke with the leadership in spring 1989 over how to deal with the massive demonstrations in Beijing and across the country. He was removed from office and placed under house arrest. Students wanting to mark Hu’s April death had launched the movement, which took on force as people complained of corruption, inflation, and restrictions on their freedom to speak and organize. Martial law was declared on May 20 and was enforced starting June 3-4. Tiananmen Square was off-limits for quite some time and martial law was only partially lifted after the national day passed.

By 1999, however, the situation was much more stable and the fiftieth anniversary was marked with a large parade and celebration. Deng died in 1997 and Jiang Zemin 江泽民, the man Deng installed as CCP general secretary in 1989, officiated over the event. He, too, reviewed the troops in an open limousine and delivered the principal speech. Earlier in the year, Falungong adherents had staged a massive, silent, and peaceful protest outside Zhongnanhai where many leaders reside. They were frustrated that their attempt to register as a sports organization had been denied. In July, the government issued a formal ban on Falungong and rounded up its leaders. By 1999, China had recovered control over Hong Kong and Macau. The economy was growing and the nation would soon join the World Trade Organization.

As noted, the government is concerned about social stability as the 2009 national day draws near. In addition to worries about ethnic protests in western China, the regime is anxious about protests driven by the harm caused by pollution. Economic issues drove protests earlier this year. The urban-rural income gap has widened (median urban household income is now more than three times median rural household income) and the economic downturn has hit migrant laborers especially hard.

Overall, however, there is much to celebrate. Living standards for hundreds of millions of people have been improved. Even as population has grown to over 1.3 billion, people have greater access to education and health care than in 1949. Over half of all China’s people now live in cities, many of which have stunning skylines and bustling markets. The October 1 events will highlight these achievements and will also focus on the need to preserve the nation’s territorial integrity and to recover control over Taiwan.

 

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"Approved Slogans" for the 60th Anniversary

(a selection of the 50 authorized slogans)

"Warmly celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China!"
热烈庆祝中华人民共和国成立60周年!

"Hail the great success of our country's reform and opening-up and socialist modernization!"
热烈欢呼我国改革开放和社会主义现代化建设的伟大胜利!

"Closely unite the Party Central Committee with Comrade Hu Jintao as general secretary, around one mind, forging ahead, and write a new chapter in the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation!"
紧密团结在以胡锦涛同志为总书记的党中央周围,万众一心,开拓奋进,谱写中华民族伟大复兴的新篇章!

"Put people first, realize, safeguard and develop the fundamental interests of the overwhelming majority of the people!"
坚持以人为本,实现好维护好发展好最广大人民的根本利益!

"Long live the great unity of all nationalities of China!"
全国各族人民大团结万岁!

(issued by the CCP and the State Council on Sept. 17, 2009)

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Related stories:

Many foreign firms in China noted the holiday as well, see Talking Points, September 30-October 14, 2009.

US-China Today reviews news coverage and provides images from the 2009 celebration.

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October 28, 2018 - 10:00am
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Please join the USC U.S.-China Institute and the International Culture Collaborative at the 2018 US-China Television & Film Innovation Summit on October 28.