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Visions of China CNN TIME Asiaweek Fortune

SEPTEMBER 27, 1999 VOL. 154 NO. 12

Oh Boy! Another Anniversary
A Beijing writer recalls what he was doing when the People's Republic celebrated some earlier birthdays

When the 10th anniversary of the People's Republic of China was celebrated, in 1959, I was a year old, and I don't remember a thing. I do know that a lot of kids born that year were given names like Guoqing (National Day) or Shiqing (10th anniversary). Much later I saw Chinese films that had been made in 1959. They weren't like the movies that came afterward, which showed only peace and prosperity. And so they were criticized during the Cultural Revolution for depicting "bourgeois humanism." That meant actresses falling in love onscreen with actors and, worse, having affection for their fathers. It was all frowned upon as "love without reason," since people could love only Chairman Mao.

When National Day came around in 1971, I was selected to join other children in displaying big Chinese-character placards as part of that year's parade. As the floats passed by the rostrum at Tiananmen, we were each to open a page of our big coloring book and hold it above our heads. Together we would form huge slogans in the sky: "Long Live the People's Republic of China!" and "Proletariat of the World Unite!" For our daily rehearsals, we'd get out of classes, gather at our school and then walk more than 12 km to Tiananmen Square. Many of the smaller children suffered from heatstroke or pissed in their pants. To the side of the Square, row after row of manholes along the pavement were covered with tents to become temporary toilets. Sometimes while I was doing my business, girls clutching their trousers would rush in to occupy the latrines behind me. I would flee in panic through another exit. Some of the boys felt similarly embarrassed but couldn't stand up, as they were doing No. 2.

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Finally, we mastered our rehearsals and were ready for the parade. It was canceled, however, because Lin Biao, Vice-Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, had just fled the country for the Soviet Union and died when his plane crashed in Mongolia. Chairman Mao was greatly hurt by the incident, and his health got worse by the day. The celebrations that year were moved to various parks. I went to the Beijing Summer Palace to attend one. I was way in the back and, while string instruments were being played on the stage, I got a little lost. I tripped and fell; I still have a small scar on the back of my right hand.

In subsequent years, we were issued tickets for National Day celebrations in the parks. Stages would be set up for acrobats, Peking Opera singers, even a women's military song-and-dance troupe. I was a hooligan in those days. I would join other boys and roam through the parks to meet girls. On these so-called Red Letter days, girls from respectable families could be found everywhere, alone or in groups. We went up to them and teased them with frivolous words to win their smiles. I had many beautiful and spiritual love experiences, unbearable-to-recall, in those parks.

The People's Republic's 30th anniversary was in 1979. By then I was a sailor on a small naval ship off Qingdao. My family was allotted just one ticket for the National Day celebration at the Great Hall of the People, and I was the lucky one to get it. This was the onset of the era of reform and opening to the outside world; the atmosphere was one of optimism. The program for the evening gala was interesting. In addition to song and dance and Peking Opera, foreign films were screened. And there was a grand ball in the banquet hall, where fashionably dressed young men and women waltzed to music adapted from Chinese folk tunes. I was dressed in my military uniform, and I did not know how to dance then. I can't express how depressed I felt. The manners and morals of the times had changed. My uniform, which had once seemed fashionable and made me proud, suddenly felt antiquated compared with the dancers' high-heeled shoes, bell-bottoms, nylon shirts, permed hair and quartz watches. Some of them were even talking in English! When I left the naval unit, I did not continue my application to enter the Communist Party. I told my superior that I had access to some television sets made in Japan and that I hoped to resell them at a profit. I went to Guangdong to deal in smuggled electrical appliances.

China resumed the military reviews at Tiananmen Square for its 35th anniversary, in 1984. I watched that one at home on TV. I saw Deng Xiaoping, dressed in infantry uniform without rank, standing in a Red Flag open limousine. With his face radiant, he raised his right hand toward the ranks of the military as his car slowly moved along Chang'an Boulevard. His voice came through the microphone: "How are you, comrades? You comrades have been working hard!" The soldiers replied in one voice: "How are you, chief? You have been working hard!" When he returned to the Tiananmen rostrum, Deng was shown in a close-up with Hu Yaobang, then General-Secretary of the party. Hu gave Deng a thumbs-up, as if to say, "Terrific!" In another, widely publicized incident, students passing by Tiananmen Square suddenly held out a banner saying: "Xiaoping nihao" (How are you, Xiaoping?). This brief, cordial greeting moved us for years.

During China's 40th, in 1989, I was playing mahjong. It had been an unusual year. A well-connected friend told me that a thorough investigation had been made into the incident that had taken place earlier that year. He told me that, although I had gone to the Square, I reportedly had said nothing wrong; I reportedly had even expressed doubts as to whether some protesters were actually students. Everything (including conversations) had been recorded, indicating that I had adopted a correct attitude toward the incident. Before that assurance, I had been worried about how the chaos might affect intelligence work. As we all know, even the best intelligence agencies can make mistakes. I did not want to receive an apology only after the event. Therefore, I did not dare stay at home. The troops and tanks had already withdrawn. It is said that a general offered a piece of advice to the party Central Committee: "Monks should always stay at the temple" and that the Central Committee accepted his advice.

During that period, I felt pain whenever I pissed. The color of my urine was no longer clear. I feared that I had contracted a venereal disease. When I went to the hospital for a checkup, it turned out I was suffering from prostate inflammation. The doctor said it was due to too much bicycle riding and that I would be all right after some rest. Since then my health has been getting worse year after year.

How time flies! This year marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic. I hear that the Communist Party wants to have a jolly time by resuming the military review and the parade. Why not? The world's largest square should not stand idle; people would say we don't know how to properly celebrate a festival. Beijing has been tearing down buildings that violate construction regulations. Two bars that I once frequented have been demolished. Several small shops in my neighborhood have also been pulled down. Workers are replacing bricks on the pavement and fixing up the greenery around the city. The festive air began early. I hope they use National Day to really make Beijing cleaner, as there is always rubbish that doesn't get cleared away. I hope, too, that they can complete some of the buildings and roads that never seem to get finished on time so that when I am watching TV I can see whether the city has met the high standards of this rare occasion.

When I was young, 50 seemed like a very big number. I once believed I'd never live a long life and that my future would be different. But now I am right in the middle of my own future, and I have not found any real change in myself. My dream is as far away as it was during my childhood. The only difference is that I have already lost my plan to realize it.

As I've grown older I've become accustomed to this country. Perhaps "country" is not the proper word; maybe "regime" is more appropriate. China is a country with thousands of years of history, and it has been ruled by this regime for the past 50. By and large I accept this statement: our country will be as chaotic and weak as Russia if the regime falls from power, and in the end it will be the common people who get the worst of it. "None of us wants our country to be in a state of chaos, right?" I really do not know what to say whenever I hear this question.

Wang Shuo, a Beijing writer, is the author of I Am Your Father and Playing for Thrills

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