With total control, China marks 50th anniversary

In highlighting its achievements, weaknesses exposed

October 01, 1999|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- Under overcast skies this morning, the People's Republic of China celebrated its 50th birthday in a way that perhaps only it could: The regime held a two-hour parade that ordinary people were forbidden to attend and were only permitted to view on state-run television.

In commemorating its golden anniversary, the world's last major Communist government hoped to highlight its achievements. At times, though, it merely exposed its weaknesses.

A desire for total control pervaded today's events as officials shut down much of the capital to public traffic and cut off cellular phone and beeper service around Tiananmen Square.

Worried about protests and snipers, the Beijing Hotel and others ordered guests to stay out of rooms overlooking the Avenue of Eternal Peace, along which the parade of 500,000 people went down.

Because of the program's length and the tight security involved, organizers distributed diapers to be worn by the carefully screened schoolchildren who performed during the ceremonies in Tiananmen Square.

Authorities have been so concerned about the potential for disruption that the thousands who live along the parade route were placed under house arrest from yesterday until tomorrow.

"Exhaust the people and drain the treasury," a woman said yesterday, using an old Chinese saying to sum up her feelings about preparations for the parade.

The stern approach to what most governments would regard as a public celebration was a grim reminder that after five decades in power, Chinese leaders view their own people with fear.

Given the party's mixed record, they might have good reason.

In the past half-century, the Chinese experience has run the gamut from brutal political purges, mass starvation and bloody massacres to stunning economic growth and increased personal freedom.

Fifty years ago today, Mao Tse-tung stood on the rostrum of Tiananmen Gate (the Gate of Heavenly Peace) and unified the nation after years of civil war by declaring the founding of the People's Republic.

Under Mao, China suffered terribly, as well.

During his 26-year reign, at least 1 million landlords were slain, an estimated 30 million people starved to death during the Great Leap Forward, and 1 million or more were killed during from 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution. Only Josef Stalin wrought more havoc on his own people in this century.

Mao's successor as supreme leader, Deng Xiaoping, dismantled China's centrally planned economy and introduced market reforms that sparked rapid growth and helped pull millions out of poverty. With Communist ideology largely irrelevant, the government now relies on the power of the army and the ability to raise living standards to maintain its hold.

With a float bearing a portrait of Deng, who died in 1997, and another featuring replicas of single-family homes, Chinese President Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji tried to remind people what the party has done for them.

Breathtaking changes

Watching the parade as an invited guest was Shao Jingcong, a veteran of Mao's Long March who had sat in the stands listening to the Great Helmsman's proclamation a half-century ago. For the 83-year-old retired cadre, the changes have been breathtaking.

In 1933, Shao was a 16-year-old peasant with little education living in Southwest China's Sichuan province. As Mao's army beat its famous 6,000-mile retreat from Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists, soldiers recruited Shao with a bowl of rice and a precious dish of deep-fried meat.

Shao, who knew nothing of communism then, recalled climbing snow-capped mountains more than 12,000 feet high in shoes made of straw. "When we got close to the top, many people died because of the lack of air and the cold," he recalled.

Sitting recently with his 21-year-old granddaughter, Yan Yan, Shao marveled at how the nation has improved while glossing over the role of capitalist principles in achieving that success.

Yan Yan, smartly dressed in black slacks and a blue dress shirt, is finishing her final year in international economics at the International College at Beijing. She speaks English and has been accepted into an exchange program at the University of Colorado.

"Look at their generation," Shao said. "They dress well, they eat well and have a good education."

Yan Yan said she admires her grandfather but views life differently.

"His thinking is very simple," she said. "He thinks of being a revolutionary as a lifelong career."

$1 billion cleanup

To emphasize China's economic progress and make the usually cluttered capital more presentable, the government spent more than $1 billion cleaning up Beijing for today's celebration. The results are inspiring and deceptive.

Along the eastern section of the Avenue of Eternal Peace, the capital's main boulevard, the government and a Hong Kong developer have created a magnet for foot traffic and shoppers. Long gone are the kiosks and construction sites encased in corrugated aluminum.

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