BEIJING (Reuters) - Amid the roar of tanks rolling through a residential street in central Beijing at midday, 31-year-old Li Meiping cried tears of joy.
“So handsome, so handsome ... we love you, Beijing loves you,” she said, holding both thumbs up to soldiers as they waved to the crowd from behind long black guns anchored to each tank.
As China’s National Day military parade extravaganza wound up on Tuesday, thousands of people who were unable to see the actual parade because of tight security restrictions lined the streets behind steel barricades to watch phalanxes of tanks and armored vehicles pass on their way out of the capital.
The parade, which included some 15,000 troops, cutting-edge military hardware and a flyover by dozens of jets, is a celebration of the 70th anniversary of the founding of Communist Party-ruled China and is the most important event in the country’s 2019 calendar.
In Beijing - where images of events like the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 30 years ago are heavily censored, and China’s wartime victories are glorified in television serials - praise for the military show seemed virtually unanimous.
“In the whole world there is no other country that has a parade like this ... long live China,” said Li, who came with her four-year-old daughter.
Organizers last month said 30,000 Beijing residents were selected to view the parade itself.
But citizens of all ages - many carrying flags and taking pictures and videos on their smartphones - began lining the exit routes hours in advance to catch a glimpse of the imposing hardware after the parade.
“I feel very thrilled,” said 12-year old student Zhang Huaiqiu.
“I have experienced the power of Chinese military weaponry. My horizons have been greatly expanded.”
This year’s parade holds special significance for President Xi Jinping, as the country looks to bolster patriotism in the face of mounting challenges at home and abroad.
While perceptions of China have tended towards the negative in Western countries over the past 18 months amid a trade war with the United States and other issues, the Communist Party and Xi remain widely popular in China.
“Supporting him is supporting China. Those who don’t support him don’t have patriotic feelings,” said 47-year old Gang Meng, who came early to one of central Beijing’s old-style hutong neighborhoods to take photos of her son in the flag-lined streets ahead of the parade.
Xi’s popularity is linked to his flagship anti-corruption drive and a wider campaign to boost the country’s technological and military prowess.
For Beijing’s older residents, who remember military parades under previous leaders, Tuesday’s show seemed much more polished.
Liu Shuxian, a 63-year-old university library worker, remembers seeing his first military parade in 1989, the 40th anniversary of Communist China and the same year as the Tiananmen square protests.
“At the time, the soldiers’ outfits were not as modern as they are now, and they were very natural, they didn’t give people the feeling that they were deliberately performing. It was the result of normal training.”
Liu, whose university-appointed housing fronts the street where the military procession made its exit, still keeps photos of the tanks that passed during the city’s last military parade four years ago, marking the anniversary of the end of World War Two.
“It’s stunning, beyond imagination, and I’m so proud of the motherland. It’s not easy, so we must cherish it.”
Reporting by Cate Cadell; Editing by Tony Munroe, Robert Birsel