China's Golden Jubilee

The Chinese government is pulling all the stops to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the People's Republic of China. But what do the citizens of China really think about all the fanfare? Michael Forsythe, the former executive editor of the Harvard Asia Quarterly, is in Beijing, and he hit the streets to find out. By most accounts, China's Oct. 1 celebration commemorating 50 years of Communist rule will be the party of the century. The central and city governments have doled out $14.2 billion (in U.S dollars) to finance 67 officially sanctioned projects designed to spruce up the nation's capital. The National Day (or guoqingjie) celebration itself, off limits to all but 500,000 invited guests and participants, has necessitated the closure of much of central Beijing during the many rehearsals leading up to Friday's gala. Aside from the well-publicized grumbling over a month of outrageous traffic snarls, what do ordinary residents think of all the hubbub? Is the state-sanctioned hubris matched by a genuine outpouring of pride? No one can answer that question better than those who have experienced the genesis itself - those ordinary Beijingers present at the creation and founding of the People's Republic on Oct. 1, 1949. Older residents paint a complex picture. A shopkeeper at China's MIT, Tsinghua University, while acknowledging the economic accomplishments of the past 20 years, notes that in 1949 and into the 1950s, people from all classes went to Tiananmen Square on their own accord to celebrate National Day. Except for 1999, nothing compares to those early years. Two elderly women, whiling away the day on a park bench at Peking University, view this year's celebration with more enthusiasm. The 40-year Beijing residents, countryside peasants at the time of liberation (jiefang) in 1949, are aghast that anyone would even dare to compare 1949 with 1999. "Sure, everyone was happy when the country was liberated," says one of the women. "Chairman Mao let China stand up on its own feet, but the country was extremely poor. Things are so much better now." The pride in China's economic accomplishments is nearly universally touted by both young and old, as are China's foreign policy successes. Another shopkeeper, proud that his two children are taking part in Friday's Tiananmen Square activities, reflects that in his 45 years, China has never had a major war. This sentiment is shared by a student from the northern port city of Dalian, who lauds President Jiang Zemin's skill at avoiding conflict with the United States during the past several crisis-laden years. But younger residents' opinions also reflect the turmoil and resulting Sovietlike cynicism of China's socialist half century. A boisterous and slightly drunk young accountant proudly proclaims that the country's achievements warrant the First World expenditures that Third World Chna is outlaying. In the same breath, however, he regales his friends with a telling anecdote of just how extensive the government's preparations have been. "The city has been kicking out the prostitutes in anticipation of October 1st," he notes. "As a result, the hookers have been withdrawing their savings from local banks." "Rumor has it that they have taken out 300 million renminbi ($36.2 million) and forced some of the small banks to shut down," he adds. A graduate student confesses that he and the majority of his peers could care less about National Day. "The government is wasting a lot of money," he observes. "My friends are generally opposed to such behavior, and the undergraduates are happy only because of the unusually long holiday that accompanies this year's anniversary," he adds. Harvard University historian William Kirby observes that public commemorations have begun this year in China - less for the five decades of the PRC than for the commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the reforms. A small and admittedly unrepresentative sample of young and old Beijingers seems to support his assertion. Pride as it was expressed was, with the exception of some foreign policy accomplishments, mostly confined to the post-Mao economic success heralded by the late Deng Xiaoping in 1978. On the other hand, the cynicism expressed by young people stands in sharp contrast to the nationalistic pomp and circumstance that now dominate radio and television broadcasts. Perhaps no group of Beijingers is more representative of the Chinese everyman than the niu yang ge dancers. Thousands of elderly and middle-aged pensioners spend the better part of their evenings on Beijing sidewalks, dancing to the cacophonous drums and horns that accompany the traditional harvest dance. "Sure, China is prosperous now, and I am happy, but during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), I had a really good time," noted a fiftysomething dancer with a twinkle in his eyes. "Economic prosperity and happiness are not necessarily related."

Written by Michael Forsythe
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