Daily Anecdote: Ringing In the 60th

China’s 60th birthday is just two days away. Here in Beijing it feels like the entire city is on spring-cleaning duty. Potted plants in bright greens, reds, and yellows are everywhere – lining sidewalks, stacked onto metal stands to form the shape of pagodas, and arranged according to color to spell out “National Celebration.” Banners bearing upbeat slogans (“Continue striving for ‘xiaokang’ society!“) have been strung over bridges and tunnels. Large structures, be they residential complexes or commercial space, proudly bear China’s “five star red flag.” Everything has to be spic and span when the largest parade in China’s history (1.7 million people are reported to be taking part) rolls onto Chang’an Avenue.

The works don’t end at making the city look its best. Beijing is also making sure everyone is behaving their best. For weeks I puzzled over the groups of middle-aged people sitting on folding stools at street corners. Are they exercise groups? Conversation clubs? Who are these early birds plunking themselves down at busy intersections before the clock even strikes 8 AM?

The mystery was solved on Monday when these rag tag groups showed up uniformly decked out in bright yellow t-shirts painted with the “60” logo. Their red armbands now say “Capital Security Volunteer.” These citizens are “voluntarily” (in truth this is a paid temp job) patrolling street corners to spot suspicious activity that could get in the way of the celebrations. All security personnel in the city – private guards employed by banks, offices, and homes – have also been given this volunteer uniform and instructed to look out for party poopers. In the extensive subway system there’s yet another group of temporary recruits wearing bright blue hats and shirts (emblazoned with “Beijing Volunteer”) and sporting matching fanny packs. Their job is to watch every metro car. With this many people out on surveillance there’s little chance that a group of disgruntled Uighurs or Tibetans or anyone harboring the host of contemporary Chinese discontents can disrupt the festivities.

It wouldn’t be a party if everyone were just being watched. There are fun parts too for the everyman. The government has promoted a whopping sixty patriotic films for release around the October 1 holiday. I’m not talking about black and white propaganda films here. It’s stuff that people actually want to watch! The biggest movie release of the bunch is “The Founding of a Republic”, directed by a group of big ticket filmmakers, including Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige. This two-hour movie is a starfest – I counted over forty famous faces making appearances, most of them in cameo roles. The Brad Pitts and Angelina Jolies of Chinese cinema (including HK) are all involved. It’s like “Ocean’s 11” times twenty. You won’t find artistic collaboration to this extent under any other circumstance.

“Founding” tells the epic story of the Chinese civil war and how Mao Zedong and the Communist Party eventually won. Other patriotic movies promoted for the 60th anniversary are themed around espionage and WWII. These also bear long lists of A-list actors and the trailers have the seductive appeal of last year’s “Lust Caution.”

I watched “Founding,” out of a sense of duty to accompany my mother and also because the trailer was poignantly appealing. I have to say I quite enjoyed it – the cinematography was phenomenal (I doubt any other Chinese film has had so generous a budget), the costumes exquisite, and the representation of modern Chinese history was not as biased as I expected. Even the English subtitles were all written correctly, making the film, in theory, internationally distributable. The only gaffe in the movie was the miscasting of two foreign characters – an African American soldier was played by what I can guess to be a Kenyan and John Stuart Leighton (the famous American ambassador) was played by an Australian. (With so many foreigners living in China I would’ve expected more appropriate foreign casting). Small faux pas aside, if this were a purely commercial film it would rank among the “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” types and garner international awards for its arresting visuals.

The biggest downer to the big ole party is the mobility restrictions it has placed on Beijing residents. On the big day, I’m scheduled to set off for a week-long tour of Inner Mongolia and nearby areas, including a few days of camping in the desert. But, like most other travelers, I’m still confused as to whether I can actually get myself to the train station. The government has severely limited private traffic for security concerns and to ensure the logistics of transporting almost two million people to their performing post goes smoothly.

Beijing’s main subway line, the East-West Line 1, will be suspended from midnight on September 30 to midnight the next day. Chang’an Avenue is closed to traffic for the 24-hour period, as are the 2nd and 3rd Ring roads. There are rumors – but no reliable official word – that parts of the 4th Ring road will also be closed. This essentially means citizens can’t get from point to point within the city starting on the eve of the birthday.

Already my commute tonight became onerous. On the way home from work I saw more police cars and starchy navy uniforms than taxis. Forced to take a bus, I found myself squished against other human sardines in a bus spilling over with riders eager to get home before the virtual lock down begins. Gridlock traffic was worse than usual.

I’m nervously awaiting an official announcement on road conditions, but even if this comes out tomorrow there’s always the possibility of the government making last minute changes to make sure its agenda gets carried out first and foremost. Here’s hoping that I won’t celebrate the 60th anniversary of my country’s founding with a backpack strapped to me, trekking 30km across Beijing to get to the train station on time!

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