October 1, 2010 - The first message of China’s 60th National Day Parade is unmistakable: a show of modern military prowess.
China, the sleeping dragon has not only awakened, not only has worked out to a state of rippling economic muscles, but also now has first-nation toys. Plenty of them: terrorist-killing drones, screaming jet fighters, cruising AWACs, and svelte intercontinental ballistic missiles as well as the usual mélange of camouflage green tanks, personnel carriers, and cruise missiles. As a television event, the live parade cuts away to panoramas of deep-sea atomic submarines, amphibious assault vehicles, battleships and destroyers with surface-to-air missiles and bristling with cannons, and swift-moving aircraft carriers.
“Made in China”
The second message: no one is going to push opium or Christianity or any foreign product or notion, however heart-felt, that we don’t want on us anymore; or impose Unequal Treaties or special concession zones; and don’t even think of carving our territory up in any way, shape, or form. Tibet and Taiwan are core issues.
Troop after precision troop of army, navy, air force, and marines – high stepping, leggy women as well as goose-stepping men - flow past the reviewing platforms facing Tiananmen Square.
The “us” who will no longer be picked on are these marching soldiers, this generation of young Chinese born after the end of the Cultural Revolution (1975), babies during Democracy Spring (1989), nurtured in a time free of war and revolutionary terrorism, and marked by an ever upward escalation of material wealth, ever-strengthening currency, military confidence, and global economic matrixing.
The “us” who will no longer be picked upon are the students – young men and women - sitting or standing right in front of me, watching their National Day celebration on a large screen TV set-up in a courtyard of the their spanking brand-new gym with two Olympic swimming pools and a state of the art of work-out area; and those packed indoors in a conference center. I am at Beijing Foreign Studies University – or BeiWai – among the top four universities in Beijing and hence one of the top in the nation. I swim here often and then stay to read English language newspapers in their quiet, spacious lobby/café.
“The Parade is a national television event,” a friend explains. Official celebrations are broadcasted into homes to share with friends and family. “Like during Spring Festival (Chinese New Year’s),” she says, referring to the all-day variety show Gala on CCTV, as well as numerous provincial level knock-offs and a snarky web-broadcast for acts rejected by CCTV. “We’ve been raised that way, so we’re used to it. That’s why China doesn’t have crowds lining the streets for these parades and why no one particularly wants to do that,” she concluded when I had suggested we go to Tiananmen to watch the parade.
This student crowd unfailingly and selectively cheer at only the right and latest military toys of defense and dominance as each made their cameo appearance on screen – the unmanned drones, the intercontinental missiles, the AWACs, the Chinese made fighter jets, and later the space and astronaut float. Pronounced pride in inventing gunpowder and the compass is for the international Olympics audience. This show is domestic consumption.
Suddenly, a squadron of jets streams rainbow streaks across the outdoor screen as they gun over Tiananmen Square. A minute later, those same jets crack the sound barrier over our heads as we twist necks to the left, shooting eyes upward, pointing fingers, and roaring out a collective, guttural “Ooooooh!”
The next message of today’s National Day Parade is the happiness of the people. In accordance with the Emma Goldman Shake-Your-Bootay barometer of Revolutionary success - “If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution” - China’s third twentieth century revolution, the revolution of modernization, is shaking out just fine, thank you. The parade’s endless contingents of just dancers, dancing industry troupes, and all the ethnicities that make up the tapestry of the renewed civilization of China boogie this message across.
Now just in case anyone thinks this mirrors a cliché, Stalinist-robotic North Korean parade paean to fearless leader Kim Jong-Il, forgeddabodit -- any such comparison, I mean. These folks are just having too much fun wriggling, writhing, and whooping. This is a Par-Tay!
That morning started quietly enough. No 6:30 AM loudspeaker leading the affiliated high school students adjacent to Central University of Minorities or “Minzu" – which I have dubbed the “Howard of China” - in their daily drill. No traffic sounds. No hawkers announcing hot morning breakfasts treats. Miraculously, the morning fog of the days before and the rain of the night before have given way to a perfectly blue-sky day. A few white fluffs of clouds hang lightly to render that fairy tale, magic day feeling.
Did the national weather bureau seed the clouds again as they did just before the Olympics to the same beneficial effect? It’s a science we scoff at in the states, but regularly produce blue-sky days for holidays here. The seeding technology even released three days of snow during last winter’s drought.
My street, Minzu University West Street, and my university grounds, are indeed almost empty – and clean. The soles of my shoes don’t crackle and snap back to the usual stickiness of the sidewalk: all the outdoor food vendors have washed down their turf for National Day and the street sweepers had swept and swept again...and again. Red flags and multi-color banners festoon the narrow, glaring, sidewalk. Elderly ladies with their red and gold monitor badges sit on small benches in front of their stoops chatting. A few early morning bicyclists meander along.
But for all the signs being in Chinese, I could be taking an early Sunday morning stroll on a side street off Columbus Circle, Manhattan.
The path leading west from the back gate of BeiWai is miraculously cleared of the various dusty and debris -laden construction projects of just a day or so before.
For days, the National Minority students at my University, Minzu, have been hastening the pace of practice – early mornings before class and then early evenings after the last class. Usually, around 5 PM, students in their colorful outfits pause in front of Minzu’s many trees and portals to have their photos taken. Then they drill astride the long soccer field, strutting up-and-down like a happy, victorious army.
Beijing has been on high security alert for weeks. Tiananmen has been irregularly closed without announcement, usually for rehearsals, but also serving as a soft shock-wave reminder that Tiananmen will be off-limits soon. Unless you have business there, best to double-check before you set out and get stuck in traffic, or stranded on a halted No. 1 or No. 2 Line subway train.
My Minzu U, the site of a three day peaceful protest by its Tibetan students during the “spontaneous” Lhasa riots of March last year, suddenly required every one to show an ID at campus gates. Delivery vehicles queued up at the gate to call in for clearance. The H1N1 virus-diagnostic security apparatus (resembles an airport security scanner) has been a required ritual for weeks now. Even the helmeted security people were curiously wearing bulletproof nylon flack jackets.
On a campus? Are we being too careful? Are we secure or insecure?
But I had received a strong rumor from a usually unflappable friend that there would be “spontaneous demonstrations” on October Day in Xinjiang. That being the case, perhaps some were planned for Beijing, too? As one Tibetogy Professor said, “There’s always rumors and rumors in China. One never knows until the day which was rumor, which was fact.”
In any event, in this new China, no chances are being taken. Nothing is left to happenstance. No undesired act will cross an unguarded opening, however small, whatever time of night, or wherever located. Rumors shall stay rumors – unfulfilled.
Even so, it feels odd coming from America, to well – feel so SECURE, a country when the very act of walking down the street can suddenly become deadly dangerous. My alumnus, the UC Berkeley campus, near to my home, is intersected with push-button alarm pods because of the ever-present danger of rape or robbery. But in China, a place that’s well – that’s already safe; I’m still not quite use to this “high security.” My civil liberties sensibility rails at all this show of public safety of course. But somewhere else in me feels that this isn’t so bad. So far…
After the ceremony opens with the national anthem, President Hu Jintao, in a tailor-made Mao suit, makes a symbolic solitary drive with his chest, head, and arms comfortably astride the sun roof of a seriously statecraft like black sedan down Changan Avenue and then a final, excruciatingly slow u-turn (don’t want to upset the boss’ stomach or force him to visibly torque on screen against the turn) back to Tiananmen Square and the leadership viewing balcony above Mao’s portrait.
En route, President Hu gives a short speech that is perfectly picked up by the old-fashion bean-sprout head microphones lined up before him, as in an old school press conference. In a stentorian mantra, he praises the nation, the thousands of years old civilization now revitalized, the party, and the people in a voice loud enough that it booms up and down the length of Changan Avenue; boomeranging Tiananmen Square.
That’s when the military parade began.
But wait, there’s more to come. The military parade is but Act I and is followed by the parade of Industry. Floats of major industrial centers roll down Changan Avenue like its own assembly line: cars, electronics, broadcast, textile, aeronautics, space vehicles, and ad infinitum. Basically all the stuff you can buy at Target, Sam’s, Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Apple Store, and Macy’s – that industry is represented.
And even shipping has its float – the stuff needs to be delivered to America, you know.
This part feels more like a Mardi Gras parade – bright reds, yellows, greens, and Las Vegas style, over-the-top floats that are a hybrid of LED screens, ribbons, fake flower siding, chromatic colors, and flanked by smiling, gorgeous, hand waving young people.
And wait again – there’s even more – an Act III: the parade of floats of the Provinces and the 56 National Minorities of China. Shanghai, my favorite Chinese city still, is represented by profiles of its iconic buildings: the Oriental Tower Building, the Hyatt, Jinmao, and others – resembling that skyline hat of my hometown’s perennial showcase, “Beach Babylon Blanket Goes to the Stars,” with it’s Transamerica Pyramid, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Coit Tower.
Occasionally, the camera cuts away to one of several aging leaders. Wen Jabiao’s appearance never fails to generate “Ooooos” and much applause. He’s the compassionate face and personality of China’s leadership – showing up in earthquake devastated Sichuan and on International Aids Day, or wearing that AIDS ribbon on his lapel while visiting an AIDS patient on a hospital bed during International AIDS Awareness Day 2008.
President Hu Jintao’s screen appearances routinely garner a few murmurs of recognition, but not much more. He’s like the efficient CEO of the country. You know – old school Father who brings home the bread, grateful for that and all, but, well – he’s not home a lot, sort of distant.
Jiang Zimen, the just former President, is surprisingly greeted with some catcalls – or what sounds to me like cat calls in Chinese anyway.
Earlier, there was a moment of levity as Wen Jiabo’s customary smile clearly jaw-dropped an inch or two into sheer delight at the sight of that squadron of prancing legs of the women soldiers, white-gloved hands chopping crisply across their well-defined breasts, and every face eye-liner and lipstick perfect. Their mini-skirted, green uniforms end in mid-thigh with a lot of leg from there to the top of their boots.
Yeah, Uncle Wen may be a tireless saint of a public servant, but that he’s still an ole’ horn- dog seems reassuring to this young crowd.
Later, another even hotter women’s unit prances across the screen: their uniforms a hot, hot salmon color, of course, mini-skirted, but with white, white boots. Did I mention their stylish soft beige beret swept to one side and again the perfect eyeliner and lipstick? Design by Baz Luhrmann?
This time, the control booth did not to pan to any leaders.
I leave the outside screening to join a friend and her student inside a viewing auditorium. Unit after unit of leaping drummers in traditional white silk and turbans, red, green, purple, and orange flower carriers, shiny, silk clad dancing couples, multi-color fan dancers, blue banner dancers, vehicles carrying giant portraits of past and current leaders, and giant black Chinese character exhortations fill up and flow along the wide boulevard that is Changan Avenue. An orchestra plays and a chorus sings the entire time.
An aerial shot shows so many rich, bright colors and patterns in and alongside the Square that for a moment, I thought I was in Beijing’s version of San Francisco’s Gay Pride Parade.
Suddenly everyone cheers as the BeiWai student float fills the screen. Can the Minzu U float be too far behind? It appears, but somehow with only a few of the students on the float, out of the hundreds that had amassed on the soccer field during practice, the float feels like a let down. Then I remember tonight’s full-fledged gala on Tiananmen Square where they, along with other troupes, will perform their hearts out. That too, will be a national television event.
Oops – spoke too soon. Here come my Minzu U kids – skipping, twirling, and throwing their arms into the air. Hats with Mongol fur, elaborate Manchu headdresses, the telltale white cloth hat of Moslem Uighur, the flowing robes and many colors of ethnic Bai, Miao, Tibetan, Naxi, and the rest of China’s fifty-six official National Minorities.
Another round of cheers and applause. Floats of those Special Administration Regions of One Country Two Systems, Hong Kong and Macao, chug by. Might there be a Province of Taiwan Province float, someone nearby wonders aloud. The re-membering of Hong Kong and Macao to the mainland is a palpable kind of excitation. With the recent thaw, it’s as if the audience can taste the prodigal child Taiwan coming home. Yes, there she is -- a Province of Taiwan Province float pulls into view and the students roar their delight.
A friend says it’s manned by locals, not folks from Taiwan…a symbolic float
Another suited elder shows up on screen. I don’t recognize him, but the complete silence at his appearance is stunning. Or is it condemnatory as a friend identifies him as Li Peng. Li Peng was Chinese Prime Minister when he ordered the crackdown on the Democracy Movement encamped in Tiananmen Square. Is it possible that these students, just babies in 1989, know about those events despite no public discussion of them, and of his role as the event’s prime architect? Is this silence an expression of shock and horror at his unexpected visage and role?
Or much later, upon reflection, is the institutional amnesia around Democracy Spring so complete that these young people simply don’t know who Li Peng is, what he looks like, much less his role in, or of, the events of June 4th and 5th.
The last contingent appears – children hoisting bouquets of helium balloons, huge orbs of deep, earthly red, but also of chalky greens, blues, pinks, and yellows. Suddenly, the released balloons soar up into the sky like a deluge of reverse raindrops.
Then, these hundreds of young children break ranks to stream across the ornate bridges to just under the reviewing platform of smiling elders, screaming their joy.
How Confucian – the young expressing gratitude to the elders for their good job; the elders happy at fulfilling their stewardship for the next generation.
The parade ends. We stroll out into the warm afternoon sun and find a place to eat. We each order a bowl of Cantonese rice soup -mine with slivers of 1,000-year-old eggs and shreds of pork - plus a few dishes to share.
It was a production. That’s how it’s done here.
I get it – and what a fine production it was.
The Evening VIP Party and Kitschy Variety Show
And flawless too, are the fireworks splashed Gala later that night, although I could have done without the smiley face explosions in the sky. This is a supper club like event (the leaders watch from tables abundant with snacks and tea) and the musical presentation is champagne-bubbly a la Lawrence Welk, a vun and a two and a t’ree!!!
Picture young male soldiers in formal military green uniforms doing a ribbon dance while skipping in place! Possibly too Gay even for the boys at Moby Dick’s, Castro District.
Picture an old guy with slicked-back hair and white suit playing an accordion who would have looked at home at the Moana Hotel on Waikiki circa 1963. He’s crying his heart out to a maudlin tune of unknown provenance.
Marvel at rows of Munchkin like kids, each holding an umbrella size leaf by its stem, rising and waving as if struck by a breeze, and then sinking quietly between rows of red foliage.
Conjure up one bouffant hair-do chanteuse after another belting out Chinese pop songs – solos, duets, and trios. I don’t think I’ve seen such a frieze of Aqua Net beehive dos outside a John Waters movie.
But then, there are the energetic teen boys in silk kung-fu outfits bustin’ B-boy moves and athletic teen girls in cheerleader outfits and pom-poms bustin’ B-girl moves - on national TV, live from Tiananmen Square!
Women drummers in red silk flood the square pounding hypnotically and furiously away. Another group of guys with Chinese bongo drums strapped to their waists and in pure white silk flank across the square and start this leaping, whirling, twisting, and twirling St. Vitus dance.
Squads of National Minority dancers in Mongol furs, Manchu headdresses, Tibetan silks, and Miao and Bai robes take their turns under the broadcast lamps. But these aren’t my Minzu U kids – must be a professional dance troupe.
And it’s not the just the young and the beautiful, but older performers and dancers, too, who share the main stage. One elderly lady dancer stands on a pedestal, like a wedding cake decoration, arms exultantly thrown back her as her wrinkly face smiles for all the world. Her arms toss akimbo as she roots herself astride an ever-shifting miasma of bodies.
Yet, in spite of my jaded, contemporary American entertainment tastes, I end up enjoying this – well, family orientated show. The Family Values Council would have approved as the commoditized sexuality that is pushed so hard in American pop culture was entirely missing, but not missed, or for that matter, needed. Everyone was beautiful anyway. Imagine Beyonce just doing her song and dance thing as lady as Barbara Streisand and Whitney Houston did back in their day. Wouldn’t we love Beyonce anyway?
The 2008 Olympics Opening Ceremony was produced for the world – and China wowed us.
The 60th National Day Celebration – the daytime parade and the evening gala - is produced for the home crowd. Today, they were more than wowed. The students I sat with were shock-and-awed proud and fiercely recommitted to the New China.
I don’t know how this 60th National Day Celebration looks from the faraway pinnacles of foreign headlines, Op-Eds, blogs, and the skeptical, often self-righteous western lenses of pundits. But that’s what it looks like from the ground in Beijing.
Ain’t your mother’s China.
 This, China’s Era of Modernization that began in the 1980s, follows the 1911 Republican Revolution that overthrew the Manchu Dynasty, and the 1949 Communist Victory over their rivals, the Nationalists, and in 1945, the withdrawal of defeated Japan from vast swaths of China.
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