National Day

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China’s 60th Anniversary national day – timelapse and slow motion – 7D and 5DmkII from Dan Chung on Vimeo.

By Alex Pasternack

My second day back in Beijing, and I was already under house arrest.

It was a sensitive time — the day before China’s 60th birthday — and I found myself stuck inside the gates of the city’s oldest diplomatic compound, where many foreign newspapers and television stations now have their offices.

Granted, this was partially of my own accord. The compound sits near the eastern end of the parade route, on the city’s legendary Chang’an Jie (Avenue of Eternal Peace), and a friend’s balcony offered a good vantage point. But because of high security, I had been told that if I left the compound, I wouldn’t be able to re-enter without a special ID card, and would have to watch the parade on television.

Getting my visa had been hard enough. My first application for a tourist visa had been rejected. “They’re very sensitive right now,” a travel agent in New York told me. I hired her as a line of defense against the Byzantine process, which includes filling out a form that asks about your itinerary or if you are a leper. I wrote a letter to the consulate, explaining that I wouldn’t be writing as a journalist while in China. I would be writing essays, I said, which was enough to convince them. On the verge of my flight, just to make it harder on myself, I misplaced my passport. When I checked in at the airport for a rescheduled plane a few days later, the computer that scanned my passport said, “Visa is not valid.” The computer was just kidding, it turned out.

Now the joke was that after struggling to get in, I couldn’t really leave.

My house arrest in the compound would be temporary and voluntary, and merely a side effect of Beijing’s careful preparations for a parade, which allowed for no unauthorized bystanders along its route. But there was something more threatening about these particular rules. A collection of dismal concrete high-rises surrounded by big walls and guards, the compound always had the feeling of a refuge and a kind of prison. To hammer the point home, the parade, I had heard, would be first and foremost a show of China’s military might.

Most of these walls aren’t that hard to climb over. The Manchus invaded. These days, a piece of software, a virtual private network, can let your eyes wander outside China’s nanny internet, to such risque enclaves as Twitter or Youtube.

But there are bigger walls, harder to surmount. The house arrest, the real kind, is a favorite pastime of the Beijing police. They’re always likely to send grim looking men to camp out outside your apartment building if you’re an outspoken AIDS activist or a human rights lawyer, especially when US congressmen are in town, or a sensitive anniversary is approaching.

On National Day, every Beijinger was on a kind of vague house arrest: to those who hadn’t already evacuated the capital, the police advised against going outside, insisting instead that we watch the parade on television. The parade route along the runway-wide Chang’an Jie would be closed to the police. Only hand-picked performers and guests would be allowed near the center of the performance at Tian’an’men Square.

Most parades are lively affairs aimed at the throngs that line its route. This would not be that kind. An immaculate display of China’s top leaders, thousands of civilian performers, floats, soldiers and weaponry, this parade-as-propaganda would be made just for TV, with all the aerial shots, cut-aways, carefully selected close-ups and pans that entailed. The civilian section would be choreographed by Zhang Yimou, a once rebellious filmmaker who has become the Party’s go-to maestro for such spectacles, and would be carried by China Central Television to billions of viewers across China, but also, thanks to the network’s growing reach, across Africa, the Middle East and Eurasia. (Foreign networks would be kept waiting all night for the right to cover the event, but there would be no other television broadcasts.)

I figured then that the prospect of getting some glimpse of the whole thing with my own eyes — and over the walls — was worth subjecting myself to temporary confinement within them.

***

As I prepared my couch bed the night before, I was expecting to be awoken in the middle of the night by the pounding of an artificial thunderstorm, the kind that Beijing authorities make by seeding the clouds with iodine cannons whenever a big event comes to town. For the past two days the buildings nearby disappeared under the unrelenting veil of fog that characterized the city’s weather. A similar pallor swept the city in the days before the Olympics last summer, but was gone by the opening ceremony. I suspected that the weather during the parade would not be left up to chance either.

At around 1 in the morning, as if on cue, a rumble began. But this was a different sort of rolling thunder, with guns that did not shoot iodine: the tanks and missiles and radar trucks for the parade were lurching slowly past the compound to a staging area on Chang’an Jie, and out of sight.

I slept through this midnight parade, so I’d have to watch the television after all. I also missed a light rain that by morning had turned the sky a radiant blue. A couple of stout, wrinkled men with walkie-talkies were milling around outside the building, keeping things safe. From where I could see, the intersection where the second ring road meets Chang’an Jie had only the occasional car, and the sidewalks were empty save for some policemen.

Having witnessed the meticulous preparations surrounding the Olympics last year, moments like these are, however strange, not surprising. The guns, the perfect weather, the guards, are less an expression of power as they are evidence of a deep fragility. It’s like watching a Broadway musical from the orchestra with a simultaneous view backstage. You can see the colorful dancers and the meticulously designed set, but you also see the wires sticking out of the dancers’ backs, and the wooden frame holding up the skyline, and the stagehands getting ready to drop the curtain. Watching something like that demands your utmost attention, even as it asks you to keep suspending your disbelief.

The ceremony began at ten on the dot with a catalog of rusted slogans. “You’ve worked so hard,” and “We serve the people!” was the call and response as president Hu Jintao, speaking with a microphone, drove past 5,000 soldiers in a black Hongqi limousine. his still torso piercing the sunroof like a wax figure. As he glided emotionless past tanks and missiles, Hu set the stage for a decorous ceremony more dour than delightful. His car resembled a hearse.

Other slogans would be emblazoned on floats, like the one for scientific development, or the Mao Zedong Thought Formation. None were as impressive as the slogans formed by thousands of red and white placards held up by a flood of participants in Tianamen Square: “Be Ready to Fight with Bravery,” “Marching into a New Century,” “Do As the Party Says,” and so on. The pixel-perfect display reminded me of pictures I’d seen of the Mass Games in North Korea. “Don’t forget where North Korea learned it from,” a friend chirped.

As the senior leadership gathered again on the Tiananmen rostrum (alongside some mysterious guests, including an African dignitary, and the former Prince of Cambodia, Norodom Sihanouk), the place where Mao had inaugurated all of this on a sunny October 1, 1949, I remembered something the Chairman had once told his city planners. Proclaiming the development of the country, he dreamed of looking out from Tiananmen to see a forest of smokestacks in the distance. Today the sky was postcard blue above Mao’s portrait, partly the result, no doubt, of last year’s Olympic campaign to move factories away from Beijing, and to shut down industry for the week.

The soldiers goose-stepped past in their finery, including a group of females in white miniskirts and pistol holsters. Hu Jintao smiled briefly. And then all that weaponry began to slide down the Avenue of Eternal Peace. Later, during the civilian parade, the announcer would describe a display of “young Chinese in the prime of life, pursuing their passion and dreams.” Now it was force.

***

In many ways, the military moment looked like the inverse of last year’s “we are the world” display at the breathtaking Olympics opening ceremony. But the parade was less a sign of the times than it was a reminder that the Party has no intention of playing with a martial tradition that extends far back into Chinese history. In fact, this wasn’t nearly as menacing as the camouflage parades that are organized for Kim Jong Il, or the vigorously anti-rightist parades made for Mao, or even the victory parades that were displayed for the Qing emperor, which could include enemies’ body parts.

Rather than serve as a blustery advertisement for China’s rise — a narrative that government ministers have been keen to play down since before the Olympics — this parade felt more like an infomercial for the country’s military wares. On offer, it seemed, was everything from “mechanized armaments to information armaments,” a missile “used for high value targets … can fly at low altitudes to escape detection,” a navy that “has developed water surface craft,” an air force with “air defense radar and electronic counter measures.” Sixty percent of the weapons displayed have been approved for export, reported Forbes.

There were of course more ominous aspects to the martial march. The military’s “trump card,” as it would be described in China Daily, came last: a phalanx of 20-wheeled trucks carrying the Dongfeng-31A, China’s nuclear-tipped intercontinental missles. They were, the announcer said, capable of reaching a target up to 11,000 kilometres away. As the weaponry passed, the parade, reported the newspaper, “reached a crescendo of excitement.”

“This is an extraordinary achievement that speaks to the level of our military’s modernization and the huge change in our country’s technological strength,” Liang Guanglie, the defense minister, said in a statement.

And eerily absent from the parade were some of the country’s most powerful weapons and troops: the ones devoted to cyberwarfare. Earlier this year, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair singled out China as “very aggressive in the cyberworld.” Weapons for that domain are not easily trotted down an avenue, and are presumably best wielded in secret.

***

At one point, the announcer on CCTV said all of it — the 8,000 troops, the vehicles, planes and missiles — were key elements in China’s “steel Great Wall.” As a symbol at least, the wall wasn’t just built to keep people out. It was a stirring reminder to China’s citizens, if anyone needed it, to be proud. And, of course, it was a reminder of who’s boss, lest ideology failed to answer that question.

“Only socialism can save China,” President Hu Jintao had intoned at the start. “Only reform and opening up can develop socialism, develop Marxism.” But he passed right over the rub: the reform and opening of the 1980s didn’t rejuvenate socialism. It ushered in capitalism. If ideology was reborn after the massacre here in 1989, it was as a kind of medicine that the government would force down the country’s throat, a tank cannon to its head.

Now, twenty years later, China was throwing a sort of Potemkin birthday party on the same tragic spot, composed of shots of robotic soldiers, tidy officials and cheering citizens, all set to triumphant music and breathless commentary. It was like sitting next to someone at the theater who keeps leaning over to remind you that it’s all real and it’s all beautiful, even though you can see what’s happening backstage.

Maybe musical was the wrong metaphor. This felt more like a wake, in the guise of a celebration.

Later, peering out from the balcony, I finally caught a glimpse of the tanks and missiles as they passed back over the Jianguomen bridge. And then I remembered a chilling photograph I had seen, taken in June 1989 from another balcony that must have been nearby: a couple cowering beneath that same bridge as a tank paused above.

This time, the tanks played a more ambiguous role. Lined up along the Avenue of Eternal Peace was China’s strong 21st century Great Wall — a method of defense, a source of pride, a tool for control, a logo. To China’s citizens, proud or beleaguered, the message on National Day didn’t need to be spelled out, but it was: “do as the Party says.” To the rest of the world, China’s missive was equally of might as it was of marketing. We could attack you, whoever you are, said Beijing — or we can give you a pretty good deal on some missiles.

Alex Pasternack writes regularly for Treehugger and Huffington Post. His last piece for China Beat was “Will China Put the ‘Eco’ Back in ‘Economy’?

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Now that the celebration is over and China has celebrated its 60th anniversary, we thought we would point out some of the National Day media coverage that caught our eye:

1. China Digital Times directed us to The Guardian, which posted this wonderful time-lapse video of the parade in Beijing; watch the day’s highlights in under four minutes!

2. Yale University’s Kang Zhengguo wrote this piece for the New York Times op-ed page, in which he reflects on his own National Day experiences over the span of five decades. While Kang marched as a Young Pioneer in the 1959 National Day-10th anniversary parade, during the following decade he would come to view National Day from quite a different perspective:

It was on the eve of another National Day, in 1968, that the security police suddenly arrested me and put me in a detention center without any explanation. During interrogation, I found out that my “crime” was related to a letter I had written a year before to the Moscow University Library, requesting a copy of “Dr. Zhivago,” which was banned in China as counterrevolutionary. The police had intercepted the letter and had been monitoring me for quite some time.

I was sentenced to three years of re-education in a labor camp, where I spent two National Days behind bars. On those days, prisoners were granted a reprieve from working in the fields. National Day was a holiday for the guards, who simply locked us inside while they went home. We were able to enjoy a day without supervision. More important, every prisoner would get a few morsels of pork in his meal, which normally featured half-rotten vegetables, thin corn gruel and steamed corn buns.

So while the whole country was involved in the Oct. 1 celebration, we huddled together inside our cells, chatting and playing cards, a rare break from the daily grind of hard labor. The parade, the fireworks and the slogan shouting seemed as remote as a half-forgotten dream.

3. Long-term views of life in the PRC are also the topic of four videos and an article by the Telegraph’s Malcolm Moore, available here (transcripts of the videos can be found at this link). Speaking with elderly Shanghai residents in the city’s parks, Moore explores the question of “Why the Communist party still enjoys the support of its people.” As 86-year-old Kuai Guoying explains, Chinese society has changed quite a bit in the past several decades, and she credits the CCP for this transformation:

I often say to my husband that life is totally different for our grandchildren, not only from the life we had, but even from the lives their parents lived. They have nothing to worry about, no need to worry about food or clothes. In the past, one had to work really hard to support four people. Now it is just the opposite.

Life has been much better now, much better, thanks to the Party, really.

4. A different perspective was on view in Hong Kong during October 1, where hundreds of people gathered to protest the CCP’s rule, and another demonstration attracted Falun Gong supporters. Read the Associated Press story here. As the article’s author, Min Lee, noted, Hong Kong’s status as a Special Administrative Region enabled protests to be held, despite the fact that such assemblies were strictly prohibited on the mainland: “The former British colony was allowed to deviate from the nationwide celebrations because it enjoys Western-style civil liberties as part of its special semiautonomous status.” Notwithstanding this relative freedom, “Some [protesters] later scuffled with police who prevented them from approaching the Chinese government’s liaison office in Hong Kong with a coffin symbolizing victims of persecution.”

5. Finally, NPR’s All Things Considered program ran an interview with Jeff Wasserstrom, in which he discusses the fifty slogans issued by the Chinese government during the run-up to National Day. He also suggests some alternative slogans that the government might want to consider (“If Mao could see us now!”), and we’d like to open that challenge to all our readers.

Send us your ideas for catchy National Day slogans — in either Chinese or English, or both — and we’ll feature some in a future post. We can be reached at thechinabeat<at>gmail.com

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Regular China Beat readers might have noticed that our posts suggesting articles and links to check out online generally take the form of a feature we call “The Five-List Plan.” Today, in recognition of the massive coverage of the PRC’s National Day and 60th anniversary celebration, we’ve decided to super-size this post. There are simply so many wonderful and fascinating things being written, spoken, photographed, and filmed in connection with the October 1 extravaganza that we couldn’t stop at five. Below, ten items worth checking out as the festivities get underway:

1. One of the persistent myths surrounding October 1, 1949 is that Mao Zedong stood atop the Tiananmen rostrum and declared “中国人民站起来了!” (“The Chinese people have stood up!”). While this is a great line . . . it’s not true. The South China Morning Post has put together a short video discussing the persistence of this myth, and we applaud their attempt to set the record straight (for a previous CB foray into mythbusting, check out Jeff Wasserstrom’s “Top-Five List of Shanghai Urban Legends”).

Read the rest of this entry »

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By François Lachapelle

This essay originally appeared on David Ownby’s blog, China at Our Gates, in June. It is reposted in full here with the permission of that site.

2009 is no piece of cake for Chinese officialdom. Having survived the invisible torment of the twentieth anniversary of Tiananmen they turn now to the preparation for the 60th birthday of the People’s Republic. Despite daily high temperatures in the 30s in North China, one wonders if Peking bureaucrats might be suffering from cold sweats.

Certain early indicators indicate that the event is being taken seriously. Visas are being restricted, as they were in the period leading up to the Olympic Games. Several travel agencies have already announced that they will be unable to secure business visas for travellers after mid-September.

China’s 60th birthday will not be a one-day event. In fact, festivities began…on October 1, 2008. So as to encourage patriotism and health among the younger generation, the Ministry of Education decided to add jogging to the curriculum. The goal for the month of April, 2009, was for elementary school children to log 120 kilometers, high school students 180, and university students 240. (The astute mathematician will notice that all these numbers are multiples of 60).

If the Beijing Olympics were meant to showcase China’s modernization and the quality of Chinese athletes, and Expo Shanghai 2010 the glowing future of the young dynasty, the first parade of the Chinese military in the 21st century will serve to put China’s military power on display. For Fang Fenghui, Commander of the military region of Peking and Deputy of the 11th People’s Congress, “the appearance of new military hardware will be one of the highlights of the military parade.” This 14th parade will be particularly important in that the Chinese contribution to the first parade in 1949 was limited to horses, while in 2009, again according to Fang Fenghui, “there will be a great deal of equipment of Chinese manufacture, of impressive quality, to be seen during the parade.”

What is the interest of this 60th birthday for those who will not be in China in the coming months to witness the ballet performances of the Red Guards, or for those who are not fascinated by military matters, straight lines, and squeaky clean uniforms? For one thing, an ostentatious display of Chinese military power is an excellent occasion to take the pulse of the American political elite and to see how many of them remain enamored of the theory of the “yellow peril.”

The theory of the China threat is a « hard » version of realist geopolitics built in part on the history of dealings with the rise of Fascism, and which tends to see each new emerging power as a threat to the balance of power. Those who hold such tenants do not believe that engaging China and linking it to the international system (as liberal theorists would prefer) will change China. On the contrary, they believe that such an approach will only allow China to get richer and to continue to modernize its military. For the China threat crowd, October 1st will be a painful day in that they will see that China is at least twenty years behind the US in terms of military technology.

At present, however, it would seem that the yellow peril is haunting Washington less than in the past. What we find are rather sentiments which argue against the China threat hypothesis, such as those expressed by Thomas Barnett, author of Great Powers: America and the World after Bush (Putnam Adult, 2009) : « If there is anything to worry about, it’s not China’s massive military; it’s the economy, stupid.»

With the economic crisis and the new administration in Washington, we see more “panda huggers” than “panda sluggers” around Obama. In 2001, Bill Gertz’s China Threat (Regnery, 2000) was all the rage, while the liberal theory of cooperation seems to be making a comeback. The idea of a Chinese-American partnership is upheld by those in Washington who oppose the notion of the China threat and see cooperation with Beijing as being in the national interests of the United States. Is Beijing happy to see the yellow peril go into hibernation? Surely, but at the same time, a rapprochement with the US might mean that China would have to play a more active role in international affairs and in the leadership of the new world order: « With great power comes with great responsibilities »! In the willfully provocative language of the geostrategist Barnett:

China has great power and demands much in the way of resources and finances and trade from the world, but China does not give much back in return. It hides behind diplomacy, denying that its troops should ever spill their blood in defense of Chinese economic interests that are now protected by American blood spilt in the Middle East…It simply does not fulfill its rising—and already enormous—responsibilities as a great power. So, yes, if you were waiting for the time to declare America to be no longer omnipotent, that time has arrived. But the bad news is, now is the time for China to stop simply talking and start actually doing something. Slogans are not enough…China needs…now to start acting much older and much wiser and much more willing to play a seriously active role, because the days of hiding behind the skirt of the U.S. Leviathan and pretending Beijing can always play the “good cop” to America’s “bad cop” are over.

China’s leaders prefer the current situation, where they can have their cake and eat it too. American leaders can (or could) justify themselves by claiming to spread democracy, individualism, and liberty. Should Beijing claim world leadership, it would be accused of hegemonism, given its confusing model mixing authoritarian politics and state capitalism. And calls for greater liberalization would accompany the accusations.

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With the PRC’s massive National Day and 60th anniversary celebration now just days away, we wanted to spotlight some of the major stories — as well as a few interesting images — that have been circulating recently. Here are several fascinating links that have caught our eye in the past few weeks as preparations for October 1 reached a fever pitch:

1. Fans of the Jackie Chan song “Country” (国家) and its music video should check out a new amateur version that went viral soon after its posting online (hat tip to Shanghaiist for the video link). The video features a spirited sing-along, much flag-waving, and a cute baby at the end.

2. China Digital Times drew our attention to this photo of a National Day float, which has been photoshopped to display a webpage familiar to many Chinese Internet Explorer users attempting to access information blocked by the country’s web monitors: “This page cannot be displayed.”

Censorship float
The picture inspired this blog post by Rebecca MacKinnon, in which she provides an overview of different anti-censorship strategies and their current status in China. It seems that most of the previously reliable ways to circumvent internet restrictions on the mainland have been targeted and disabled by authorities, both in preparation for the October 1 celebration and in response to unrest in Xinjiang over the summer.

3. Media controls around the 60th anniversary are also the topic of an essay recently posted at China Media Project by Qian Gang and David Bandurski. The authors examine three ways in which the Chinese media might attempt to “dance with their shackles on” as they seek to report events in accordance with government regulations, yet also push the envelope when the situation calls for doing so:

[By] Keeping distance from the discourse of power, but seeking to publish “words of conscience” within the bounds delineated by the authorities, evincing the professional character of the media. A few web portals, such as QQ.com, have attempted to highlight important lessons of the past 60 years through reasonably safe but backhanded methods.

QQ set up a section allowing users to vote themselves on what they saw as key events in the PRC’s history. Some sites have also tried to walk the line through special interviews with Chinese scholars, who may on occasion step gingerly into progaganda grey areas. Another important tactic is to run tragic personal stories from ordinary citizens in an indirect attempt to highlight the crooked path of China’s history over the past 60 years. Their focus is not on the party or the nation, but on the individual.

4. A compelling look at 60 years of China Pictorial covers can be found here (hat tip to Danwei).

China Pictorial Cover 1

5. Another great video (and another hat tip to Danwei) was produced by Polish journalist and photographer Janek Zdzarski. Two minutes of clips vividly showcase the pre-National Day aura in Beijing, “a surreal mix of festive exuberance manifested by the unfurling flags and floral decorations, as well as the wariness caused by heavy military and security presence.”

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