1 Oct 2009

China's carefully choreographed anniversary Party

It can sometimes feel like quite a sinister experience, this celebration. I’m not sure if it was the teenage soldier grabbing my arm as I tried to enter the compound where our offices are based, or the armoured personnel carrier outside the Nike shop that did it, but Beijing’s not been feeling that relaxed of late.

It’s 60 years today since Mao founded the People’s Republic of China, defeating the nationalist government after world war two. 60 is an important number for the Chinese – it’s five cycles of 12 (the number in which an equivalent of decades are counted in China). So this is one big deal of a party.

But these are not normal pre-party nerves. No-one’s pacing around the kitchen wondering if they’ve laid out enough Pringles. They know people are going to attend, as the 180,000 parade participants are soldiers and party loyalists.

This is an authoritarian regime that stifles dissent but prides itself in the wonders its economic miracle has done for living standards. The nerves seem to be fear that something could go wrong in the stagecraft, and the “big P” Party will be found wanting in control.

Not much has been left to chance. They’ve banned domestic pigeons (they can get in the way of the air flyovers). They banned knife sales in supermarkets (there have been a few mass stabbings in Beijing of late).

People who haven’t made the 30,000 guest list have been asked to stay at home and watch it on TV to “avoid complications”. They’ve locked down the capital city’s centre and lined the streets with thousands of civilian volunteers, sat there, in the rain at 2am last night. I’m sure they knew why they were needed.

To be fair, it’s been flawless. A spectacular display of China’s growing military might. The troops, the nuclear missiles, the tanks, the nuclear missiles. The smog and overcast skies that have haunted Beijing for the past week vanished, the air force saying they had deployed a “magic-like” technology.

President Hu Jintao – dressed a lot like Mao, in the place where Mao declared the creation of the new republic – said: “[We] have triumphed over all sorts of difficulties and setbacks and risks to gain the great achievements evident to the world. Today, a socialist China geared toward modernisation, the world and the future towers majestically in the east.”

The goose steps were perfect – a reminder of the 2.3 million soldiers in the People’s Liberation Army. That, combined with the truck-based ICBM missile, will surely raise a few nervous smiles in Taiwan and maybe even the Pentagon. But the message was – we’re repeatedly reminded – one of peace and harmony.

This morning the pre-parade debate on Chinese State TV – there’s an English one, presumably so ignorant non-Mandarin hands like myself can get a semblance of what’s going on in the state psyche – gave a very martial perspective on the celebrations ahead.

The anchor turned to the general in his panel of interviewees, and said simply: “So, we can summarise China’s military posture as offensive?” The general paused. I paused. I swear I heard the Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter start playing in my head. Was this a quiet confession? Was war just a shot away? No. The general corrected him. “Defensive,” he said.

Everyone sighed with relief. Then the studio went back to the co-anchor at the video wall, showing pictures of the Chinese J10 fighter jet, which they said was “beautiful”.

They spent some time discussing why this parade is very normal, happens in every country in the world, and is actually less frequent than the Russian equivalent. (That’s true, but the Russians don’t bother excusing their display of military hardware and – I always thought when I lived there – rather enjoyed how nervous it made their neighbours).

But it’s not normal. It’s something quite different. It’s a big: “The last 60 years of toil have worked, OK?” sign, aimed not at the rest of the world perhaps, but at the Chinese people.

China has changed in ways that are quite hard to fathom. We’ve been to rural areas that a decade ago were farming villages. Now they live in the shadow of high-rise apartment blocks. The industrial juggernaut has overturned almost every corner of life here, and many – outside of the neon, sushi and brand name multiplex shops of Beijing – have been left behind. They might wonder today whether the People’s Republic of China had all of its people in mind.

It’s perhaps these people that this display is aimed at. If you had a nationalist sinew in your body, you’d clearly feel it swell. We stood on one quiet street closed to traffic. The spectators quietly sat on the kerb, watching the enormous TV screen feed of the parade on the square. Then some jets flew overhead, trailing coloured smoke.

The street filled as people got to their feet from the kerb. They screamed in excitement. They waved their hands in the air. I felt a little uncomfortable as the cheers continued for bomber jets, attack helicopters, fighters.

I rang an American to ask if they cheer B1 bombers when they fly over at parades or airshows in America. Apparently they do. I suppose we cheer the Red Arrows. So it’s OK, then.

This was not really a parade for foreigners – not a re-run of the Olympic opening ceremony, which so impressively announced to the world that China was here, and you really should pay attention, right now, please.

Many foreign journalists are miffed at the access arrangements. At midnight, a text message from a helpful colleague summoned us to the hotel where the press centre had decided to start giving out press passes to the celebration on the square.

There were a lot of angry journalists there, denied a pass. ITN were, however, invited to the party. Well, some of us were. The ITV News cameraman, and our producer, Bessie Du. He’s Irish and she’s Chinese-American, so you can half see the logic behind the selections there. We were invited, but in such a way that we couldn’t actually attend meaningfully.

Nonetheless, this is a milestone, and for the Party, part of a journey rather than its culmination. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao said last night he was looking forward to celebrating new China’s centenary.

The pace of change here; the obvious need for nationalist pomp to bind together a people divided by material inequality; the scale of the security measures in the streets. It all makes you wonder whether this system, with its extraordinary advances and inadequacies, will be here in 40 years time.