Brush aside the propaganda - 60 years hasn't weakened the communist grasp on China, writes John Garnaut.

On the outskirts of Beijing a lone and slightly drunk soldier straightens his back, raises his hand in salute and shouts until his temple seems ready to explode. "I'm with the 28th Army. I'm with the Mountain Pagoda regiment in this military parade. I represent the soldiers of the Red Army. The living and the dead. I salute you, Chairman Mao."

It was March 1949 and Mao - the great military strategist soon to become China's beloved Red Sun and, to the outside world, one of history's more notorious dictators - slowly raises his hand in reply and fights back tears.

The soldiers of the Mountain Pagoda regiment, lined up on either side, had just won Liaoshen, the last and one of the more heroic battles of north China, and swept down from Manchuria's bitter cold and over the Great Wall. Reborn from the ragtag gaggle of Long March survivors and having won millions of peasant hearts, pushed back the Japanese, defeated the Nationalists and stared down the United States, they were on the brink of unifying China for the first time in more than a century.

After this scene in The Founding of a Republic, released to Chinese moviegoers this week on its way to surely becoming the country's greatest box office hit, one can start to understand why most of China's 1.3 billion people will pause next Thursday - China's national day - to salute the founding of New China.

"The Chinese people have stood up," says the film Mao on the eve of founding the People's Republic.

To many outsiders, Thursday's military parade in Tiananmen Square will be a strange, even bizarre, spectacle celebrating 60 years of communist rule. While the freed proletariats follow instructions to stay home and watch the event on television, Beijing's Chang'an Avenue and Tiananmen Square will be cordoned off and adjacent hotels put out of reach - precautions, we're told, against snipers and Free Tibet flag wavers.

Migrant workers and possible political troublemakers have been stopped from entering Beijing. Mosquitoes and rats have been eradicated. The Communist Party intends even to defeat the weather with the help of cloud-seeding aircraft and fog-dispersing vehicles. Nothing will be permitted to rain on China's new generation tanks, ballistic missiles and the presidential Red Flag convertible of Hu Jintao.

''It is the first time in Chinese history that artificial weather modification on such a large scale has been attempted,'' says Cui Lianqing, an air force meteorologist.

An outpouring of patriotic films, documentaries and symbolism is as much about airbrushing history as celebrating it.

Typically, the official narrative selects Long March highlights, the anti-Japanese War, the 1949 Liberation and awkwardly fast-forwards to 1978 when Deng Xiaoping heralded the era of "opening and reform".

Founding of a Republic is a superbly shot historical drama, co-directed by Han Sanping and featuring almost every Greater China film star, all of whom donated their services. A work of sophisticated propaganda conceived by the Beijing Municipal People's Political Consultative Conference, the film shows an easy, almost slapstick scene where the communist leaders enter a mudbrick auditorium in Xibaipo, near Beijing, for an early party congress. Mao and his fellow revolutionaries are smiling and relaxed, easy in each other's friendship, as they are throughout the film.

Mao is avuncular and magnanimous, even to his foes. And yet he managed in the following 25 years to purge all but three of the 10 senior companions featured in that scene.

In 1959 Peng Dehuai gently warned Mao his Great Leap Forward was a mistake. Peng was purged and Mao ignored his advice, at the cost of more than 30 million Chinese people who starved to death in three years of economic chaos. In 1969, during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, Mao's hand-picked successor, Liu Shaoqi, died of pneumonia in a prison cell. Lin Biao, the master strategist of the Manchurian campaigns who replaced Liu as Mao's successor, was declared a traitor after dying in a 1971 Mongolian plane crash. Deng Xiaoping was twice purged and his son tortured and crippled after being forced from a fourth story window.

The Founding of a Republic depicts Mao inviting democrats and capitalists into one happy coalition government. But it conveniently ends before Mao outgrew his need for them. Millions of democrats and entrepreneurs were sidelined, purged and murdered.

One "value", however, links the Communist Party's various incarnations: a commitment to uniting China and keeping it united. When Beijing is patiently wooing renegade Taiwan towards reunification, it is instructive that Chiang Kai-shek - Mao's Kuomintang foe who retreated to Taiwan - is portrayed as patriotic, even noble.

"Unifying mainland China was the major pledge they successfully fulfilled," says Geremie Barme, a professor of Chinese history at the Australian National University. "Various undertakings they made prior to 1949 to bring democracy, freedom of speech and equality to the peoples of China were cynically betrayed."

Most viewers, however, won't be focusing on what the film embellishes or conceals. Says Anne-Marie Brady, a University of Canterbury expert on Chinese propaganda: "I don't think Chinese viewers will be watching this and thinking Liu Shaoqi died a horrible death and that Mao's actually so busy scheming that he has no time to think sensibly about policy. They're going to get caught up in the drama and walk out with a good feeling about China, like they're supposed to have."

The party and the people aren't without sources of pride, of course. It's just that most of these achievements were crammed into the past 30 years. They fulfilled Mao's rhetoric and became a wealthy and powerful nation, leading the world out of economic crisis and this week breathing life into global climate change negotiations.

Sixty years ago, schooling was a privilege for fewer than one in five Chinese children; now it is virtually universal. More than a quarter of a billion people have been lifted above the World Bank's poverty line. And few Chinese these days must sleep hungry.

Stephen FitzGerald was Australia's first ambassador to China. He points to three achievements in the first three decades of communist rule that laid foundations for success - destruction of feudalism, creation of universal education, and laying down equality for women.

Even though the Communist Party's Leninist structure is largely unchanged, the party evolved from underground militia to party of revolution to party of economic reform. FitzGerald predicts it will also adapt to the complexities of modern economics, global leadership and pluralistic society.

"There's not going to be any sudden leap into a democratic system; it's going to be the internal evolution of the party together with the development of a civil society," he says. "Every now and then it gets hit on the head, but it is growing."

He says China is on course to be Australia's "single most important external factor", with profound influence in our domestic life.

Huang Jing, a political analyst at the National University of Singapore, says last week's Fourth Plenum of the 17th Congress showed the party's internal democratic transition had begun. Each Chinese leader, he says, is weaker than the previous, leading to ''institutionalised bargaining'' within the party.

"Compromise becomes possible and necessary," he says. Previously, it was win or die.

Nicholas Bequelin, at Human Rights Watch Asia, is well versed in China's darker side. The party still crushes all organised dissent. Political evolution is not fast enough to prevent massive unrest, particularly in western China.

''There are many different futures China's boiling in the pot today," says Bequelin. "Some of them are very encouraging: the rule of law, the harmonious society program. But you also have this harder-edge China, this nationalist attitude, a rise in xenophobia, criminalisation of segments of society - these are things that could unravel."

Hu's challenge on Thursday will be to give credible meaning to the grand military parade ritual. What honourable aspect of the People's Liberation Army in 1949 is recognisable today? And what do the Chinese people want the Communist Party to honour today? The easiest answer is the one the Chinese President wants to highlight most: "The Chinese people have stood up.''

John Garnaut is the Herald's China correspondent.