The divergence in political ideologies could hardly have been laid out more starkly.
In Beijing, the increasingly authoritarian Xi Jinping stood in the very spot overlooking Tiananmen Square where Mao Zedong had declared the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949, following in the footsteps of the Soviet Union.
With goose-stepping soldiers, a convoy of missiles and portraits of the party chairmen carried on floats, it was a display that would have been recognizable to Mao — or to Joseph Stalin.
“This was a very Soviet, very Cold War-style parade packaged for the 21st century,” said Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at Australian National University. “China accuses others of Cold War thinking. But this is Cold War acting. And it’s not the China that many of us were hoping to see 10 or 12 years ago.”
The firepower on display in Tuesday’s parade was certainly remarkable.
“I think it’s a little surprising that China was so straightforward,” said Tong Zhao, a weapons expert at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center in Beijing.
The DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missile, which can be armed with 10 nuclear warheads and is on a par with U.S. and Russian missiles, made its public debut at the parade.
China for the first time displayed as many as 16 examples of the DF-17, a medium-range missile that can launch a hypersonic glide vehicle and would be extremely difficult to intercept. Its inclusion in the parade in a signal that the weapon is now operational and ready to be deployed, Zhao said.
There were also H-6Ns, a new version of China’s long-range strategic bomber — which has an underbelly reserved for a large ballistic missile, probably to be used against large ships such as aircraft carriers — and JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
“It’s possible that they showed us their emerging nuclear triad,” Zhao said. “They have land-based, sea-based and air-based nuclear capability.”
The largely indigenous technology also was developed amid a deteriorating international environment for China.
“China’s defense industry is independent and complete,” said Wang Yiwei, a professor of international affairs at Renmin University in Beijing. “This shows that China is not afraid of any evil pressure when it comes to the so-called China-U.S. trade war.”
American policymakers should view Tuesday’s parade positively, Wang said. “If you are not hostile to China, you should be encouraged by its achievements,” he said. “And these weapons and skills are not stolen.”
The weapons also had an important domestic message. Most were developed and deployed under the watch of Xi, who took power at the end of 2012.
“This helps highlight his personal achievement of promoting the dream of having a strong army,” Zhao said, referring to Xi’s pledge to return the Chinese nation to the strength and prosperity it once enjoyed.
“Xi presided over the parade, surrounded by people who were applauding, to send the message that he is popular,” he said. “Xi wants to show that he is a great leader and is confident that China will continue to rise.”
Meanwhile, Hong Kong highlighted one of Xi’s mounting challenges.
Large crowds gathered to protest what they see as China’s increasing encroachment on the freedoms the semiautonomous territory is supposed to enjoy, but the demonstrations quickly turned violent. Police fired live ammunition directly at protesters for the first time, seriously injuring at least one.
But none of this was visible in the mainland. Coverage in Chinese state media — which accounts for almost all Chinese media — was full of reports about national unity and the miracle of China’s development.
Any discussion of the events in Hong Kong was swiftly removed from China’s parallel Internet and social media accounts. The top Hong Kong-related news on Baidu, the Chinese search engine, was about Chinese flag-raising ceremonies in the territory and what it described as the strong sense of patriotism toward China the residents there feel.
“They have shut down any leakage of information and have convinced the population that the ‘black hands’ of foreign powers are behind these protests,” said Bonnie S. Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “That narrative has resonance.”
Indeed, 20-somethings in Sanlitun, a popular entertainment and shopping area in Beijing, said they felt no connection with their peers in Hong Kong.
“Hong Kong youth have never experienced hardships,” said one 23-year-old real estate agency worker during a break, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “They want to live like foreigners, but they are Chinese.”
A 22-year-old sitting outside a hipster clothing store echoed that view.
“It’s always good to have more rights and freedoms, but I think as a mainlander we already enjoy the fruits of economic development,” she said, also speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of political discussions. “But we should not create trouble for our government.”
With this absence of spillover into the mainland, and mindful of the extraordinary damage that intervening in Hong Kong could do to his political standing, Xi remains unlikely to send in troops to quell the protests, Glaser said.
“Instead, he’s sending a signal to Hong Kong and Taiwan, to all of China’s neighbors and to the West, that China is making great strides toward becoming a first-tier military power,” she said.
Liu Yang contributed to this report.