Mr Hu said socialism had saved China, and thanked the PLA and the People's Armed Police Force, the guarantors of Communist rule, for safeguarding national security.
A new, modern China was standing up and facing the world, he said, but this ceremony felt as if it came from another era - Mr Hu rode in a vintage Red Flag limousine wearing a Chairman Mao-style tunic.
Greeting the troops as comrades, he commanded them to serve the people. Then the world's largest standing army put on a show.
The Second Artillery Force sped by with five types of missiles, some so large that the ground rumbled underfoot.
China's 60th anniversary parade
At the 50th anniversary a decade ago, 24,000 soldiers took part in the celebrations. This time, only 8,000 marched past. The emphasis has shifted from manpower to technology.
Some 52 weapons systems, including unmanned aircraft, tanks and missiles were on display, most of which had never been seen before. As each passed by, the official commentator marvelled at how most had been developed in China.
Then came a flypast of 150 military planes and helicopters. The modest display was perhaps an indication that China still lags behind the West in home-grown aircraft technology.
Locals in Beijing were told to stay at home to watch the parade on TV
Later, a pageant of floats celebrated China's successes.
This was pure communist kitsch, but the hand-picked crowd were thrilled to see Zhai Zhigang, the first Chinese "taikonaut" to walk in space, waving at them from a mock-up of his Shenzhou 7 spacecraft.
And no review of Chinese history is complete these days without reference to last year's Beijing Olympics.
Liu Xiang, the hurdler who disappointed his country by failing to compete in last year's Games, appears to have been forgiven. The crowd waved and cheered as he passed.
Then it was the turn of China's regions and provinces.
Shanghai's float was dominated by the China Pavilion, the centrepiece of next year's World Expo.
Tibet's display featured a large screen with images of happy Tibetans, although it was not clear whether the people on the float were ethnic Tibetans or, as is often the case, Han Chinese dressed in local costumes.
Ethnic harmony is a theme of President Hu Jintao's leadership
Ethnic harmony is a theme of President Hu's leadership, and it took a central role in the day's celebrations.
Around Tiananmen Square, 56 red lacquer columns represented each of China's ethnic minorities.
However, following the riots in Tibet last year, and then in Xinjiang earlier this year, those claims of national harmony struck a false note.
The Communist Party of China (CCP) is happy to take the credit for the country's transformation, but slow to own up to its mistakes.
Millions died during the Great Famine, while hundreds of thousands were persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. The party has still to apologise - a giant portrait of Mao led the parade.
And now, as before, the ruling Communists deal ruthlessly with any challenge to their authority.
Even for these celebrations, nothing was being left to chance - there was tight security everywhere.
Away from choreography in Tiananmen Square, armed police patrolled empty streets.
Locals in Beijing were told to stay at home - this celebration of the founding of the People's Republic, the police said, should be enjoyed on television.
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