“Socialism with Chinese characteristics” proclaims a blood-red
propaganda banner hanging from a Beijing sky-rise. The irony of this
Party slogan in many ways sums up present day China — a China torn
between cadres and cash, and where change is the only constant.
China’s 50th National Day parade at Tiananmen Square on Oct. 1 was in
many ways a declaration to the world that a modern China has arrived.

Present day Tiananmen bears little resemblance to the horrific images
still etched deeply into the minds of most westerners. The square is
the center of Beijing, which in turn is the political and cultural
center of a country whose very name means, “center of the world.” Today
around three sides of the square, fashionable shopping malls, McDonalds
and KFCs, and the Chinese stock market huddle. On the Northern side is
Chang’an Avenue, the grandest in Beijing. The avenue crosses in front
of the gate of the Forbidden City where Mao’s massive portrait still
hangs. Below on the square locals congregate to ride bicycles,
socialize and fly kites. Mao’s mausoleum is exactly in the middle of
everything. Today’s students happily stroll the square displaying the
latest western fashions and snapping photos, oblivious to political
concerns played out here ten years ago.

My photographer and I were approached by two of these young ladies a
few days before National Day who introduced themselves as Lindsay and
Cecilia and asked if we would practice English with them. Cecilia wore
white platform boots, hiphugger flares and a Hong Kong-hip Baleno top.
She spoke great English. When we mentioned we needed to buy sport coats
and were considering the Zhong Shan style popularized by Sun Yat Sen
(the father of Chinese nationalism) she wrinkled her nose in disgust for
the traditional Chinese jacket still worn in the countryside by farmers
and manual laborers. Cecilia was more ambitious than those unwashed
masses and shamelessly demonstrated the classism creeping into Chinese
society. Lindsay, meanwhile, was working in her notebook translating
any Chinese phrase she could find — among them, “Long live the unity of
the peoples of the world.”

The parade itself was meticulously designed to go off without a
hitch. We arrived at the massive China Central Television tower before
dawn on Oct. 1 and waited in line with a throng of foreign
correspondents from all over the world. We were privileged guests at an
event where the security had been so tight that Beijing residents were
told to stay home and watch the event on TV. The only way to the square
was to be shuttled in on special busses. Foreign tourists who arrived
in Beijing with the intention of seeing the parade were turned away at
roadblocks radiating from Tiananmen at a distance of two miles. After
slowly making our way to the front of the queue and sending our bags
through the conveyor of the mobile-X-Ray truck we boarded a bus to the
reviewing stands on Tiananmen.

On the bus trip the press corps gossiped about this and that,
searching for leads in a country where a hot story in the state-run
media is this year’s increase in grain production. The matronly
reporter from TVE Spain said the rain was so heavy the previous night
because clouds had been seeded over Inner Mongolia in a last ditch
effort to save the parade. The China Daily forecast clouds and wind but
no rain. A German TV producer was interested in the propaganda campaign
on billboards and television to place business-oriented Jiang Zemin
alongside revolutionary Mao and reformer Deng as one of China’s great

President Jiang Zemin has been developing a reputation as a
wheeler-dealer around the world since he moved into the top Chinese
leadership position two years ago. At the Chinese Revolution History
Museum Mao, Deng and others are shown in Zhong Shan suits with serene
backdrops. Jiang, in contrast, is portrayed as the vanguard of Chinese
business brokers in his power suit. A modern cityscape with skyscrapers
amid the yellow haze serves as his backdrop. The only hint of where his
true allegiance lies is the burning red torch he holds aloft.

Soon after we arrived at the reviewing stands on Tiananmen the
ceremony began. After a 50-gun salute that thundered across the square,
Jiang began his speech from atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace. Jiang
emphasized that China’s development in the last 20 years was a result of
hard work and reform but also stated that experience had shown that
“socialism is the only way to save and develop China.” According to
Jiang, Taiwan’s ultimate return to the motherland is not a question but
a certainty. Jiang also emphasized the importance of the “One country,
two systems” model of Chinese reunification as envisioned by Deng Xiao
Ping; though often it seems as if two systems are already operating even
within China’s mixed economy.

As the soldiers began to march in lock step and the tanks rolled
across the square, the discipline of the Chinese military presented an
image of strength to the world. China’s latest armor, artillery and
missiles including Dong Feng ICBMs on mobile launchers all rumbled
through the square in perfect alignment. High above fighters, bombers
and a group of attack helicopters swept across the cloudy sky completing
the impression of Chinese invulnerability. Subsequent floats featured
massive portraits of Mao and the revolutionary successes of his regime,
Deng and development, and Jiang and reunification and modernization.

In the afternoon the city was quiet. The center of the city was
entirely closed off. Upon our return to our hotel, we met some American
acquaintances that had watched the parade on a monitor while eating at
McDonald’s. They recounted how Chinese families in the restaurant had
watched quietly, transfixed in fascination. They were unable to
participate in this 50th birthday celebration of their People’s Republic
of China but tasty burgers filled their tummies. At present, it seems
the people of China live as much under the watchful gaze of Ronald
McDonald as Mao Zedong.


Brian Carr Smith is a travel writer who has contributed to several
best-selling guidebooks, including Russia and the Baltics, Italy,
Scandinavia, Spain and Portugal, and Europe Through the Back
Door. He also writes for “Synergy,” an independent youth-culture
magazine covering the electronic music movement.

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