China's Xi leads Martyr's Day ceremony amid patriotism drive

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Chinese President Xi Jinping, center, leads other members of the Chinese Politburo Standing Committee including Premier Li Keqiang, right, to bow as they pay respects before the Monument to the People's Heroes during a ceremony to mark Martyr's Day at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

BEIJING – Chinese leader Xi Jinping paid respects at a solemn commemoration Thursday for those who died in the struggle to establish Communist Party rule, as he leads a national drive to reinforce patriotism and single-party authority.

Xi and the six other members of the party’s all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee led aged veterans and government and military leaders in paying their respects at the Monument to the People’s Heroes in the center of Tiananmen Square while a military band played.

While Xi, who heads the party and also serves as state president, made no remarks, Premier Li Keqiang spoke at a reception Thursday evening on the eve of National Day Friday.

The Martyr’s Day ceremony underscores the stress Xi places on Communist traditions after establishing himself as China's most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, who founded the People's Republic in 1949 after sweeping to power in a bloody civil war. This year's ceremony follows commemorations of the centenary of the founding of the party in 1921.

While building up a cult of personality, Xi has pushed a hardline on foreign policy and a crackdown on free speech and political opposition in the semi-autonomous city of Hong Kong. Relations with the U.S. have sunk to their lowest level in decades, with Beijing issuing a bevy of complaints on issues from human rights to Washington's support for Taiwan.

China claims the self-governing island democracy as its own territory and threatens to use military force to bring it under Beijing's control. Xi, who also controls China's vast military, has upped that threat by sending military aircraft into airspace near the island on a near-daily basis while ground troops conduct drills on the coast opposite.

In his National Day comments, Li praised the government's performance over the past year and reiterated its key policies.

“We will continue to fully and faithfully the principles of ‘one country, two systems’ ... and maintain long-term prosperity and stability,” Li told the gathering, referring to formula under which Hong Kong was handed over from British to Chinese rule in 1997 that pledged it would be permitted freedoms not found in mainland China.

On Taiwan, Li said Beijing would also continue to “promote peaceful development of cross-strait relations relations and reunification of the motherland."

“We will firmly oppose and deter any Taiwan independence separatist moves or external interference," Li added. “Working on the principle of mutual respect and equality, China will step up exchange and cooperation with other countries to jointly tackle global challenges and promote the recovery and growth the world economy."

Tiananmen Square and surrounding roads were closed off for Thursday's ceremony, which began with a trumpet fanfare, the singing of China's national anthem and a minute of silence.

Steps and the upper level of the monument, an obelisk standing 10 stories partially carved with images from the struggle to establish Communist rule, were covered in red carpet.

The ceremony also featured a choir of children wearing the white shirts and red scarves of the party's Young Pioneers youth organization singing their anthem, ”We are the heirs of communism."