Daily Anecdote: Big Ole Party

On October 1, China will celebrate its 60th birthday. That’s counting from 1949 when Mao Zedong announced the founding of the People’s Republic of China atop Tiananmen to an audience of 500,000 in the Square down below. Unless you’re deaf, mute, and blind, there’s no way you can be in Beijing and not have an idea of just how big this birthday bash is going to be.

Starting from September 12, stretches of Chang’an Street – the widest, longest, and most important of Beijing’s grand avenues that runs from East to West (through Tiananmen in the middle) – will be closed so the party organizers will have a chance to run rehearsals and set up for the big show. This also means that the Palace Museum, Tiananmen’s viewing levels, and a host of other central attractions in Beijing will stop receiving visitors. In terms of impact to tourism, this is equivalent to Paris shutting down the Louvre for more than two weeks or New York halting ferry service to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.

Hey, if the government is taking such great pains to prepare for the big event it should be one hell of a spectacle, right? Yes, you can bet your Mao suit that it will be and you can see all of it…on your TV. Unlike Fourth of July parades and other national day festivities, Beijing’s bash is closed to the public. There’ll be a lot of people there (I would guess at least a thousand invitees), but all of them will be Very Very Very Important Persons (VVVIP) and people with to-die-for “guanxi” (connections). The average citizen won’t be able to get within miles of Tiananmen Square leading up to and on the big day itself. The Grand Hyatt and other hotels in the epicenter of action have been wholly booked out by the government. Hotels within viewing periphery are also out of the question – when a journalist called up to ask about the possibility of a room with a view he was met with an embarrassed laugh.

It’s not just the touristy areas that will be affected. Everyday life is also ramping up and changing shape as we head into national day. The judicial centers that receive millions of petitioners – most of them desperately poor and having travelled great distances across the country to bring their grievances to the capital – have closed. Without a place to go and having some idea of how to get their sad stories heard, the petitioners have taken to milling about in front of the China Central Television (CCTV) headquarters. The evening news and important daytime radio programs are already starting to recite the litany of key messages that will be harped on during the national day address. Last night I heard an unequivocal radio report on an exhibit of the recent ethnic violence in Xinjiang. On smaller issues, even before rehearsals start, congestion is increasingly common as roads are cleared for scores of official vehicles to pass through. Last week, I sat at an intersection 500 meters away from my apartment for twenty minutes watching with dull boredom as fifty or so squeaky new (and empty) buses whizzed by with uniform speed and flashing lights. I can only guess that these are the cars that will transport performers or VIPs (for the VVVIPs will surely have classier rides). Word on the street is that President Hu Jintao will arrive at the jubilee in a 17-foot stretch limo. Bling bling, that’s how the socialists roll these days.

No question about it, it’s going to be one fantastic shindig, communist style. Tens of thousands of performers will showcase their skills for precisely choreographed dance and musical praise of our great nation. An equally impressive number of army, air force, and navy men will also undoubtedly be strutting their stuff in awesome military parades. And if I remember correctly from my days as a Young Pioneer (I still have my red neckerchief) and as class monitor at Shuangyushu Elementary, there’ll be a bigger array of brightly colored flora arranged in appropriate motifs or spelling out sprightly messages (“Ecstatically Celebrate the Motherland!” perhaps) than any world class botanical garden has ever seen. Elsewhere, in Shanghai and Guangzhou I presume, there will be public celebrating, parties and events at entertainment establishments. But here in Beijing, the partying is for the Party members, everyone else is encouraged to be home. And that’s where I’ll be, at home, on my couch, tuning into a historical show.

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