In honor of the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, the National Committee is e-mailing its members and friends a series of “postcards” from China. The cards, intended to capture a sense of the proceedings in Beijing, come from friends of the Committee attending events, observing the activities around them, and reflecting on what they see and hear.
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The 60th anniversary parade was the first I witnessed first-hand since 1984. Several things struck me about the parade, the run-up to it, and the portrait of the 60 years of the PRC portrayed in the media during the last few weeks.
First, the parade was “a new-style communist military demo with Chinese characteristics.” While such military demonstrations only take place in countries ruled by communist parties (plus France), the sheer grandeur of it all dwarfs the USSR, DPRK, Vietnam, etc. What would Stalin or Kim Jung-il have thought of the pink mini-skirted, go-go booted, AK-47 toting female militia? (Actually Uncle Joe and the Dear Leader would likely have relished it!) Phalanxes of goose-stepping troops, followed by multiple formations of military equipment, followed by portraits of leaders and political slogans, followed by thematic floats… it all makes the Rose Bowl or Macy’s Thanksgiving parade pale in comparison! The evening fireworks and festivities were equally astounding, rivaling last year’s Olympic opening and closing ceremonies (all choreographed by Zhang Yimou).
The parade was astonishing for the sheer magnitude, precision, and orchestration of it. But there was such a regimented and fabricated quality about it. Even the weather was manipulated. Contrast this with Fourth of July celebrations, or even the enthusiastic inauguration of President Obama on the National Mall in Washington earlier this year (both of which I witnessed): these events were filled with spontaneity, unfettered enthusiasm, and above all, ordinary people! Here in Beijing, it was all orchestration, feigned enthusiasm, and only invited guests allowed. In America and other countries, the citizens are permitted on the streets to witness and take part in the festivities; in China they are kept at home. Maybe this is too harsh, as it was a spectacular event, and I am sure multitudes of Chinese watched proudly on television, but one had to be struck by the artificial nature of the whole exercise.
Hu Jintao’s opening speech and the succession of portraits of Mao, Deng, Jiang, and Hu along with huge characters indicating their own contributions to the Chinese Communist lexicon, also reminded me of what I call “kouhao zhengzhi” (slogan politics)–one political slogan strung together after another devoid of real substance or content. Yet all the faithful “biaotai” (pledge) their allegiance dutifully.
The military portion of the parade was quite interesting to me given my background studying the People’s Liberation Army. This has all been written about elsewhere–but I found notable the display of new cruise missiles, the DF-21 SRBM, the DF-31A ICBM, the new AWAC aircraft (cloned form the Russian Ilyushin IL-76), and an array of surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). The rest of the equipment, to my knowledge, had all either been seen before or was an upgraded version of that shown at the 1999 parade. At any rate, none of it is new to the Pentagon.
The whole leadership turned out on the rostrum to view the event, including retired leaders Jiang Zemin, Zhu Rongji, and Li Ruihuan. Absent from the parade but present at the state banquet the previous evening were retirees Li Peng and Zeng Qinghong. Qiao Shi and Wan Li were nowhere to be seen (confirming their place in the political wilderness). To my knowledge, this is the first time Li Peng has been seen in public since his retirement–and obviously the political choreographers did not see fit to put him in front of the global cameras on National Day.
Mention also has to be made of the truly extraordinary (and excessive) security measures taken in the run-up to and on National Day. Nobody unauthorized could get within miles of Tiananmen. People living near the parade route (as we do) had to stay inside with windows closed. The New York Times reported well on all these measures (many quite silly). I attended the Olympic Games in summer 2008, but this year’s security was MUCH tighter! Even the international airport was closed for six hours during the parade. The previous weeks’ dress rehearsals also resulted in considerable security crackdowns and disruption to local life, causing many people to complain.
Finally, I have been carefully reading and monitoring how the local media has portrayed the 60 years of CCP rule of the PRC. It has been, to say the least, highly selective and biased. The CCP takes credit for all China has accomplished over these past six decades (“The CCP = wealth, power, peace, and prosperity.”), rather than the people of China. All blemishes of the past or present are conveniently airbrushed out of historical narratives; the first 30 years of the PRC are conveniently forgotten, while the accomplishments of the past thirty years are highlighted. The lack of public honesty about past policy errors is striking (and not healthy for a body politic). Even careful readings of PRC histories produced by CCP institutions in conjunction with the anniversary reveal huge gaps and omissions in historical narrative. Maybe it’s simply easier for Chinese political culture to bury the past than to deal with it?
All in all, I am still digesting the extraordinary events here in Beijing over the past week, but these are a few initial impressions for NCUSCR members and readers.
Best wishes from autumnal Beijing,
David Shambaugh is the director of the China Policy Program at The George Washington University. He is currently a visiting Fulbright Scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
I’m so proud and happy when we Chinese celebrated the big day together! And you know what, my son was there! He was part (of course, a tiny small dot!) of the rainbow!
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The 60th Anniversary celebration on TV was gorgeous and amazing!
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I did watch the 60th Anniversary celebration and the gala on TV. Very grand! I can’t imagine how it worked so well. As a Chinese, I feel proud of the great achievements we’ve made. The celebration will surely make the whole nation better united and further promote the development of our country.
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While watching the 60th Anniversary celebration, I kept asking myself, “Is it National Day or the Army’s Day?” These days, what is heard and read is how people feel about the anniversary, more precisely speaking, about the display of armies and weapons. They feel excited and proud of it and there seems to be no exception. But in my personal opinion, there must be better ways to celebrate our National Day. I will never go to a party whose invitation is marked with a knife or gun.
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The military parade is really impressive, and it’s a great show of the confidence and pride of the country’s development amid tests and crises. I liked the evening gala better – the grand performance, top leaders dancing with people and the incredible fireworks.
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60 years ago, one early morning in April, my grandmother hurried into my mother’s bedroom and told my parents that there were wounded fighters lying on the ground in front of our house. My parents got up quickly and went out to invite those fighters to stay in our house. I still remember the medical people used our study and wounded fighters stayed in some other rooms. From that day on, my parents offered some of our rooms for the army to work in for a couple of years in the early days of liberation. When I watched the celebrations on Oct.1st this year, I missed my parents and thought of all they saw in later years.
Since I began studying Chinese history 40 years ago, I have marveled at the massive celebrations held in Tiananmen every ten years; so I was thrilled finally to have the chance to see one live. The parade and fireworks display did not disappoint. Every second was perfectly scripted, like a massive Cecil B. DeMille production. Either it was naturally one of the most beautiful October days since I first moved to China 30 years ago, or Chinese meteorological modification worked perfectly. In either case, at 9:59:30 a.m. (really) the sun broke through the clouds and the parade proceeded under a virtually cloudless blue sky.
The marchers far outnumbered the watchers. I sat several hundred yards east of and below the leadership, and can only imagine the pride they felt looking down on the throngs of parade participants. From 10:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. over 200,000 people, first military and then civilian, marched in front of the leadership and invited guests. It was extraordinary, and the atmosphere would have been electric if the millions who wanted to watch in person had been able to do so. However, the event was made for television to avoid any potential disruption.
We returned to Chang’an in the evening for the biggest and most elaborate fireworks display I have ever seen. At the end of the program, I was surprised to see all nine Standing Committee members of the Politburo, accompanied by Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji, descend from the Gate of Heavenly Peace to dance with the performers. While clearly also highly scripted, it was an extremely effective made-for-television moment. In fact, as I sat through the day’s events (starting at 6:45 in the morning and concluding at 9:45 at night) I heard the leadership’s message to its own people loud and clear: thanks to the visionary rule of the Chinese Communist Party, China has returned to its rightful place in the world. As we always have, we can manage the massive celebrations; now we can also refuel our fighter planes in the air. (Two fighter planes were refueled over the Square toward the end of the military parade.) Stay with this system, stay with this leadership and tomorrow will be a better day.
In the morning of October 4, I went back to Tiananmen to see the aftermath of the celebration. Now that the traffic restrictions had been lifted, the streets were clogged with cars, so I took a subway more crowded than New York’s at rush hour, and discovered that the two stops at the Square were still closed, so I got out at the stop before the Square with thousands of others. I could barely push through the crowds to exit the station, as I joined tens of thousands of people from all over China making their way to the Square. The laobaixing [ordinary people] couldn’t go to the parade. They had watched on television on October 1, but even three days later were determined to get their piece of National Day: they marched through the Square where many of the floats were parked — snapping pictures and belatedly celebrating the event.
On its 60th anniversary, China’s leadership rightly takes pride in its accomplishments since the founding of the People’s Republic. The parade and fireworks were a manifestation of that pride aimed, of course, at their domestic audience. Seeing Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao, Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji together on the Gate and then in the Square with the performers, emphasized that the Chinese people should expect smooth transitions and more progress going forward.
Stephen Orlins has been president of the National Committee since 2005.
The dinner, parade and party marking the PRC’s 60th anniversary on October 1 were similar in many ways to the last celebration in 1999. The festivities this year, like those a decade before, began on September 30 with a dinner for 5,000 people in the Great Hall of the People, hosted by the premier, with Party and government illuminati seated behind cordons at oversized, flower-bedecked tables. The wine was from the Tianjin–Remy Cointreau joint venture Dynasty, since 2005 a Hong Kong listed company, and was accompanied for the more traditional-minded by Maotai. Enormous Chinese peaches graced each table, along with moon cakes for those in a Mid-Autumn mood (the Mid-Autumn festival fell on October 3 this year). My wife Isabelle, musing about what it takes to serve 5,000 portions of crab soup, Atlantic cod, breaded jumbo shrimp, veal in red wine sauce, stir-fried jiaobai (zizania latifolia, a Chinese vegetable unavailable in the United States), and sliced fruit, suggested that the kitchen would be a terrific candidate for a feature show on the Food Channel.
Even though we live in Beijing, Isabelle and I were required to spend the night of September 30 – October 1 in a secure hotel on Chang’an Avenue just east of the Oriental Plaza. On National Day we rose early, breakfasted, gathered with a hundred others in the lobby, and were ushered through a security checkpoint and onto buses for the short ride to the Square. Not having adequately considered the abilities of China’s top meteorologists to clear the skies of the wet haze that had blanketed Beijing over the previous several days, we settled into our seats in the bleachers without hats or sunscreen. As the clouds dispersed during the morning, we found ourselves under crystal clear skies and a very bright sun.
We were installed in the bleachers with over an hour to spare, time sufficient to try out the miniature radios that were distributed with bottles of mineral water and program booklets. The radios, which came with earphones, allowed parade viewers to scan the airwaves for either Chinese or English radio commentary to the parade. They were festooned with a large sticker indicating that they were provided courtesy of the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television.
We were seated on the north side of Chang’an Avenue across from the National Museum and a gigantic liquid crystal screen showing the China Central Television broadcast of the events. Behind us were the vermilion walls of the Forbidden City. While waiting for the parade to start we had plenty of time to observe, only 40 yards or so away, the troops who would lead off the parade with an impressive display of precision marching. (News reports referred to “goose stepping,” which may indeed be the correct term. But the step they did differed from the Prussian/Soviet/Nazi goose step, in that the knee was bent as the leg was raised, and only straightened for the down stroke. This may seem like a minor difference, but to this viewer the step appeared less menacing.)
I’m not a military expert, but it was clear to me that China has made major advances in military hardware. The radio commentators were at pains to emphasize that the equipment was Chinese designed and manufactured, and underscored progress in command and control and other dimensions of modern warfare that cannot be seen in a parade. That a country able to put a man in space is capable of making modern tanks and fighter jets should not be surprising. However, as a military observer cautioned me recently, the real question is how they will be used.
The parade was orchestrated with television in mind, and aimed at a domestic audience accustomed to the visual extravaganzas of Zhang Yimou and the Beijing Olympics. Video cameras appeared everywhere one looked, perched on the tops of buildings, in helicopters, and on high speed remote-controlled rigs strung between truck cranes, and called “flying cats” (feimao). The Chinese Communist Party, whose celebration this was, intended for citizens to watch the parade on television.
Those of us who had a street-side view of the parade were able to enjoy the spectacle directly as well as on the giant screens at both corners of Tiananmen Square. It was on these screens that we were able to get birds-eye views of the parade and close ups of the CCP leaders seated on the Meridian Gate of the Forbidden City.
The parade began with a demonstration of military might, and segued into a celebration of achievement and aspiration with elaborate floats and their crowds of gaily – and sometimes bizarrely – dressed escorts. It ended when flocks of doves (or were they pigeons?) were released. When the parade was over we walked, sunburned, along Chang’an Avenue to our hotel alongside thousands of students and other participants, whom we learned had been up all night getting ready for the parade. Many were clearly exhausted, but it was a festive atmosphere.
Later we returned to the viewing stand to watch the party that began at 8:00 p.m. in the world’s largest plaza, Tiananmen Square, and like the parade earlier in the day, its dimensions were beyond human scale. The massive fireworks that started, punctuated and closed the celebration were impressive, but because they had to fill such a large space they lacked intimacy. I doubt that there has ever been a larger peaceful pyrotechnic display, but from where we sat this one seemed a tad distant. Perhaps aware of this distance, China’s leaders left the rostrum to enter the Square, where they were shown dancing and singing songs hand in hand with young people and children. Although these scenes could not have been spontaneous, there was no mistaking the genuine smiles on the faces of the men (yes, they are all men) who lead this huge country.
The events we witnessed inspired many thoughts about China’s past and future. The message we were meant to understand was that the Chinese Communist Party had created a proud nation that had found its way and was advancing rapidly. Yes, there had been mistakes, but now was not the time to dwell on them. For the second half of the PRC’s 60 years, since Deng Xiaoping returned to power in 1978, the country had embraced “Reform and Opening,” and now China had regained its rightful stature as a great nation.
As someone who first traveled to China during the dark period of the Cultural Revolution 35 years ago, I appreciate the message. China has indeed made enormous progress. Looking ahead we can see many remaining challenges and hope that they will be met with confidence and creativity. If so, there will be even more to celebrate ten years hence.
John Holden was president of the National Committee from 1998 to 2005, when he returned to China. He is now managing director of Hill & Knowlton in Beijing.
Rain lingered in the air. Beijing is turning chilly, especially in the mornings and evenings. My students gathered with hundreds of their classmates on the basketball courts of our school sports area. They were rehearsing for the upcoming National Day celebratory parade. Again. They are used to practicing, having spent many days this summer working hard to perfect their lengthy routines. Now they are tired. They have to balance their complex school schedules and homework with their demanding practice sessions. Many of my students are involved in academic instruction seven days a week, and take classes or receive tutoring from the early morning until seven or eight at night. Their homework load can be overwhelming even between exams. As I watch them strain to stay awake through another hour of practice, trying to stay warm in the rainy morning chill, I feel for them. Do they think it is worth it?
Of course many of them do not have a choice about their participation. Our school was selected, and then certain students were chosen, a great honor. Many days they speak of October 1st with excitement and pride, but on other days they are so very tired. They express confusion about the numerous changes in the schedule; they seem fearful of the work they will have to make up when more classes are cancelled to make time for practice; and they share with me the frustrations expressed by their parents about the subway closings and additional security measures that have made life in the center of Beijing a challenge for the last few weeks.
For me these changes in normality have added to the unpredictability and intrigue of my new home, providing an exciting change from the routine. My husband and I have wandered through streets closed to vehicular traffic watching crowds of people in glorious costumes and admiring the decorative flowers and lights appearing all over the city. But I am here to experience the new, for a break from the norm of my teaching career at home. For my neighbors, my students, and my colleagues, these preparations come with closings and security measures announced at the last minute that have a significant impact on their lives. One student spoke with me about his parents’ struggle to pay for the additional security equipment required by the government for the hotel they own. He asked me rhetorically whether I thought that the government should help cover the costs of such measures if they were mandating the requirements.
Almost all of the students at the Experimental School Attached to Beijing Normal University have benefited from China’s economic growth and increasing global influence. Even though they are not amongst the millions who have been lifted out of poverty or the first in their families to receive an excellent education, they have a quality of life unimaginable to most of their grandparents at their age, and professional opportunities ahead that will allow them to follow their personal interests and passions. Perhaps some of the twelve-year-olds waiting in the rain to lift a bunch of plastic flowers in the air with thousands of others to form a character only visible from above cannot be expected to understand the significance of this parade beyond the juxtaposition of their parents’ pride and the immediacy of their tired, cold feet. But the older students seem to grasp that this is their nation’s demonstration to the world of both power and unity. They see a connection between the growing economy of China and the vast celebration coming up.
Clare Sisisky, a high school history teacher in Richmond, Virginia, is spending the 2009-2010 school year teaching English at the Beijing Teachers University Affiliated Experimental Middle School as a participant in the U.S.-China Teachers Exchange Program.