03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Spoonful of Sugar

Mao Zedong and Mary Poppins seem to have few things in common aside from rosy cheeks and the fact that the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic of China coincides with Julie Andrews's 74th birthday. As if to honor both, after days of smog as thick as placenta, the winds changed on the morning of October 1 to reveal impeccably blue Beijing skies. The streets were alive with the sound of military music as 8,000 smartly suited soldiers marched at a precise 116 steps a minute, and Tiananmen Square swelled with enough tanks and missile power to make the North Koreans look like wet-nurses.

As an American more accustomed to parades of the three-story tall Sponge Bob variety, I watched both charmed and petrified as the average height President Hu Jintao rolled down to Tiananmen in a Hongqi, or Chinese-made limousine with a striking resemblance to a Cold War cruiser. Waving out of the roof in a slim-fitting gray Mao suit, he solemnly saluted soldiers with alternating expressions of "Tongzhimen hao" ("Greetings, comrades") and "Tongzhimen xinkule" ("Comrades, you've worked so hard!").

Although Chang'an Avenue looked decidedly majestic flanked with tanks and soldiers, the only witnesses to the event were the freshly scrubbed high-rises on either side of the avenue and the snipers dutifully surveilling from their rooftops. The ordinary Chinese of the People's Republic were nowhere to be seen, aside from the 30,000 officially invited guests of the government permitted onto Tiananmen Square.

The first half of the parade displayed the best the Communist Party and its military assets could offer, including a fleet of stone-faced females marching in mini-skirts and white go-go boots. According to Evan Osnos of The New Yorker, these girls were not real soldiers, but a troop of village officials, teachers, doctors, white-collar workers, and mothers united especially for the occasion. Oops. We won't tell Hu, who cracked his one and only smile during the parade as they marched by.

Residents of Beijing, blocked from getting anywhere near the event, were instead encouraged to stay home where they could be dazzled by the festivities on television and where the aerial views of the square allowed them to read the huge red and white signs formed by thousands of performers simultaneously flipping large colored placards. "Do as the party says," flashed one, followed shortly after by, "Socialism is good" and "Long live China."

As a westerner living in the capital, I have mixed feelings about the 60th anniversary. I was initially vexed to learn that Beijingers couldn't attend their own country's parade, and that all other cities were forbidden from having their own celebrations because so much security had been deployed to Beijing - there wasn't enough left to secure against riots elsewhere. But I quickly remembered that this is China, the country that can control its own weather and block Facebook from 1.3 billion people. Certain things happen here that don't elsewhere, but this doesn't mean that everything is bad, backwards, or militantly communist. Most of the time, it just appears that way.

A parade of exactly 60 exuberant floats followed the military, showcasing China's advancements in agriculture, aeronautics, athletics, education, health care, technology, and others. Kitsch in a Chinese New Year sort of way and very reminiscent of the Olympic hullabaloo that still thrives in Beijing, the celebration ended with thousands of schoolchildren releasing balloons into the sky.

Of course, a few balloons haven't made me forget that China is still governed by a party that occasionally does silly, contradictory, or even incorrigible things, (see Tibet, Xinjiang, Burma, and select parts of the African continent), but any country with big aspirations often does. The point is, because of and despite its 60 years of communism, China is poised to surpass Japan as the world's second largest economy, and who knows what else.

So bring on the parade, the pandas, the fireworks, and the new subway line. A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.