As Chinese President Hu Jintao rolled through Tiananmen Square Thursday, reviewing thousands of assembled troops from atop his open-roofed limousine, Wang Yanhao leaned in closer to his computer monitor, his long, thin face glowing red in the dimly lit Internet café.
"Watching this, I feel proud to be Chinese," the 23-year-old aspiring singer said as Mr. Hu drove past long phalanxes of troops, tanks and missile launchers.
Mr. Wang got up early after a late night performing at a nearby nightclub to watch Thursday's parade celebrating the 60th birthday of Communist China. There was no television at the dormitory where the Jilin province native sleeps when in Beijing, so he rushed over to secure a computer terminal at an Internet café in Beijing's eastern Chaoyang neighbourhood.
With security tight in the city, there was no way Mr. Wang could get anywhere near Tiananmen Square, where Mr. Hu and other leaders watched a two-plus-hour parade involving some 187,000 participants. Most restaurants and shopping malls in the capital were ordered to close for the holiday, so there was nowhere Mr. Wang could watch on television, either. "I'm watching this thinking how wonderful it would be to be there in person," he sighed.
But Mr. Wang's enthusiasm for the anniversary wasn't widely shared by his fellow computer nuts at the Internet café. As the parade commenced at 10 a.m., Beijing time, only three of 30-plus customers in the café were watching Mr. Hu review the troops. The rest played online role-playing games like World of Warcraft and Doom , or surfed pages showing pictures of scantily clad Chinese actresses.
It was a day of pride and pageantry in which few ordinary Chinese were allowed to take part. Most of the downtown core was closed, and even those with apartments along the parade route were ordered to shut their windows and stay off their balconies.
Tens of thousands of heavily armed police were deployed throughout the city, occasionally warning those hoping for a peek to head home and turn on their television sets instead. Political dissidents were warned ahead of time to leave the city completely.
Those who did turn on their TVs saw an impressive show of China's growing military prowess, and heard Mr. Hu make an appeal for reunification with Taiwan, the breakaway island that has functioned as an independent republic since the Nationalist armies fled following their defeat at the hands of Mao's Communists in 1949.
"We will unswervingly uphold the principles of 'peaceful reunification' and 'one country, two systems' to maintain long-term prosperity and stability in Hong Kong and Macao and push forward the peaceful development of relations across the Taiwan Strait," Mr. Hu told the assembled soldiers and dignitaries, standing on a rostrum over a giant portrait of Mao and speaking from the same spot where Mao had proclaimed the Communist victory 60 years before.
Cross-straits relations have recently been at their warmest since the civil war ended, with the two sides launching direct charter flights, shipping and postal services under pacts negotiated by Mr. Hu and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-Jeou.
"We will continue to strive for the complete reunification of our motherland, which is the common aspiration of the Chinese nation," Mr. Hu said. Taiwan was later included as one of 34 Chinese "provinces" to have a float in the parade.
After Mr. Hu's speech, a fearsome three-kilometre-long procession of grey-uniformed special-forces troops, pink-clad female militia and sailors in dress white goose-stepped by at exactly 116 steps per minute, followed by rumbling rows of green battle tanks and sky blue missile launchers. China's state-run Xinhua news agency said that 52 previously unseen types of home-grown weapons systems were unveiled during the parade, including new armoured vehicles, mobile radars and self-propelled howitzers.
The armour was followed by a display of longer-range weapons, including new cruise missiles and mobile launchers capable of firing nuclear-equipped intercontinental ballistics missiles. Fighters, bombers and combat helicopters roared overhead near the end of the display.
For all Mr. Hu's talk of peaceful reunification, much of the weaponry - including newly developed amphibious assault vehicles and the Dongfeng 21C anti-ship missile, which could force U.S. aircraft carriers to stay a greater distance from the Chinese coast and the Straits of Taiwan - seemed targeted at sending a message to Taipei.
"The parade is a clear signal to Taiwan. The variety and quality of new arms on display has to be intimidating to Taiwan military officials," Wendell Minnick, a Taipei-based correspondent for Defense News, told Reuters. "China is basically saying to Taiwan independence advocates, 'forget it, you're going to lose.'"
As he reviewed the troops and armaments, Mr. Hu was flanked by former president Jiang Zemin, who oversaw China's last major military parade 10 years ago, as well as the other eight top members of the Communist Party' political bureau. Other than Mr. Hu, who sported a collarless black tunic in the same style that Mao wore, the leaders were dressed in Western-style business suits with brightly-coloured ties.
The military showcase was followed by giant floats bearing oversized portraits of the country's four "paramount leaders" since 1949, Mao, Deng Xiaoping, Mr. Jiang and Mr. Hu. The portraits were accompanied by signs bearing each era's political slogans, from "long live Mao Zedong thought!" to Mr. Hu's more modest "implement the scientific outlook on development, unswervingly follow the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics!"
The portraits were followed by garish floats representing China's startling progress in fields such as agriculture (a giant sheaf of wheat), science (an oversized microscope, perched on a computer keyboard), industry (a high-speed train car, with a model of a domestically produced regional jet suspended over it) and clean energy (a float featuring oil rigs that was, bizarrely, powered by solar panels). China is now the world's third-largest economy, and the Communist Party claims credit for lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty during its rule.
However, history, as it usually does at Communist Party events, took a beating. Forgotten in the parade was Hua Guofeng, who succeeded Mao as leader upon his death in 1976 and who denounced the murderous excesses of the Cultural Revolution. A proponent of greater state control over the economy, he was ousted by the reformist Mr. Deng in 1981. Mao, meanwhile, was celebrated as the Great Helmsman despite the fact he is regarded as one of history's great killers, by some estimates responsible for upwards of 60 million deaths during the famine of the Great Leap Forward and the purges of the Cultural Revolution.
There was even a float representing China's "system of multi-party co-operation," which seemed particularly surreal given the Communist Party's harsh repression of dissent and free speech, and the bloody 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protests that took place on the same Tiananmen Square.
Such nuances were lost on Mr. Wang and the others who spent the anniversary inside the Internet café. History wasn't a strong point, Mr. Wang acknowledged.
He was simply proud of where China is now, and where he believes the country is going. Mr. Wang said he sometimes talks to his parents about the early days of Communist China, and admires them for what they went through. Today's China, he said, is far richer and freer, but lacks the sense of direction the country once had.
"My parents' generation didn't have so many things provided for them, but I think they were also a harder-working generation who met a lot of challenges," he said, watching as the man at the neighbouring computer fought a running battle with an axe-wielding ogre.
"People like me who were born in the 1980s and 1990s have more choices and better things in life, but we're also more negative and helpless. It's unreal, what we have now."