China reigns on its parade

This is a parade that demands state-level security. Discipline. Extreme secrecy.

Ordinary people will not be allowed anywhere near the parade route in Beijing on Thursday, when the People’s Republic of China marks the 60th anniversary of its founding with a military parade.

That applies even to people who live in the neighborhood: Entire apartment buildings along the route toward Tiananmen Square are being evacuated to prevent residents from watching. Cameras and binoculars are forbidden in many locales.

As the city prepares for the parade, Beijing feels more like a city under martial law than the dynamic capital that wowed the world during the 2008 Summer Olympics.


The more than 80,000 students marching in the parade have been forced to sign secrecy agreements that prohibit them from talking to reporters (Chinese and foreign alike), sending text messages or posting blogs or photographs of parade rehearsals.

Supermarkets have been ordered not to sell sharp knives, and the mailing of soap, toothpaste and liquids within Beijing is forbidden, apparently out of fear that they could be used to make explosives. SWAT teams with armored personnel carriers are stationed at key intersections.

People who live near the parade route are forbidden to have guests in their homes or use their balconies. Pigeon fanciers have been told to keep their birds grounded.

Even kite-flying has been banned since mid-September.


“Are we having fun?” demanded a sarcastic Li Datong, a former editor at the China Youth Daily who is one of the few who have spoken out publicly against the parade. “Does this look like a country at peace?

“The National Day celebration is supposed to be a happy occasion, but this certainly doesn’t feel like it.”

When it comes to celebrating the modern country’s communist roots, the cowboy capitalism and media-savvy youth of 21st century China take a back seat to tradition. Michael Anti, a Chinese blogger and social critic, says the inconvenience posed by the parade is not incidental but part of the message.

“The Communist Party wants to show the young people it still has control. They’re saying in effect, ‘Even though you might have Twitter, I’m the one with power,’ ” Anti said. “The focus of the parade is to get people to act in a collectivist manner, like North Koreans.”

In contrast, during the Olympics organizers made an effort to include people in the star-studded opening and closing ceremonies through a lottery that allowed anybody to apply for tickets.

Not this time.

“Those who can watch the show live on location are invited only,” Beijing Vice Mayor Ji Lin said last week during a briefing. Representatives of the neighborhoods near the square were among those on the guest list, Ji said.

Journalists received telephone calls this month instructing them not to photograph rehearsals. Japanese journalists with the Kyodo News agency who were filming a rehearsal from a hotel room Sept. 18 complained that Chinese police broke into their room, roughed them up and smashed equipment.


An official speaking on condition of anonymity said security is tighter this year than in 1999 -- the year of the last parade -- because ethnic violence in western China has prompted fear of terrorism.

The inconveniences have been large and small. Rehearsals on weekends over the last month have virtually paralyzed the city. With checkpoints on main roads and public transportation suspended, businesses had to send employees home early and close at an incalculable cost.

When rains delayed a rehearsal one weekend, the exclusive French restaurant Maison Boulud, fully booked for a reception, had to close and refund customers’ money.

By this morning, many of the biggest hotels in the city, including the Grand Hyatt and the Raffles Hotel, had been virtually evacuated. On the glass-facade shopping malls along Changanjie, the main avenue passing Tiananmen Square, high-end boutiques like Armani and Tiffany & Co. were also closing down.

Although Beijingers are resigned to the omnipresence of big government, they have begun to grumble, at least among themselves.

“Can’t you see how much business we’re losing,” barked the owner of a store selling cigarettes and drinks near Tiananmen Square.

On a subway platform where hundreds of commuters were stuck trying to get home during an early closing for a rehearsal, a middle-aged man mumbled angrily to a friend, “This parade is a waste of money and brings grief to people.”

He then looked around nervously to make sure he hadn’t been overheard.


Complaining about the parade is taboo, hence the secrecy agreements that the parade participants were forced to sign. But it’s almost impossible in the 21st century to keep students from blogging their discontent, and some criticism has managed to make it onto the Internet.

Tens of thousands of students in Beijing -- ranging from 14-year-olds to college freshmen -- were told in the spring that they had to “volunteer” for the parade. Participants had to give up most of their summer vacation and attend 12-hour rehearsals that often lasted until 3:30 a.m., flipping colored fans that spell out Communist Party slogans.

“We Chinese torture ourselves for some face and superficial pride,” wrote one student, who said that teachers had insinuated that a refusal to participate could affect their future academic careers. “Forcing people to participate in the parade can become a new Guinness World Record of ridiculousness.”

The blog postings were removed quickly after being put up, and some students received visits from the police.

The spectacle unfolding in Beijing is pretty much the same as it has been on many key anniversaries since China’s founding in 1949. Although there may be more glitz this year for the 60th, the parade should follow the same script: formations of goose-stepping soldiers follow tanks and missiles down wide boulevards, and floats celebrating China’s achievements from aerospace to agriculture are serenaded with choruses of the youth-league anthem, “We Are the Heirs of Communism.”

No doubt, there are many older Chinese who appreciate the pomp and formality of the tradition.

“We do these parades every 10 years, and each time it is exciting,” said 81-year-old Li Wei, a retired Communist Party official from Shanxi province. He had come to Beijing for the parade, but will watch on television.

But even a decade ago, some critics were complaining that the parade was an anachronism.

No less esteemed a figure than the late Li Shenzhi, an intellectual who served as Premier Zhou Enlai’s diplomatic secretary, wrote in 1999 in an essay published in Hong Kong that the military parade reminded him of the worst authoritarian regimes in the world.

“There’re not so many countries left in this world that want to show off like this. My humble guess would be only North Korea’s Kim Jong Il still has a passion for this sort of thing.”


Times staff writer David Pierson and special correspondents Tommy Yang and Nicole Liu contributed to this report.