Two weeks ago I sent out a Tweet to my friends telling them I was “confined to my apartment by the PLA [China’s military]” for the entire night, and that “they wouldn’t even let me out for dinner!” Well, it’s happening again, for the third time this month, and the whole crazy thing is starting to make world headlines, so I figure I ought to relate the full tale of what’s going on here in Beijing.
October 1st is China’s “National Day,” commemorating the day in 1949 when Chairman Mao stood atop Tiananmen (the main gate to the Forbidden City) and announced the formation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Every ten years there is a big parade along Chang’an Avenue, Beijing’s main east-west boulevard, and through Tiananmen Square featuring — but not limited to — a military review of goose-stepping soldiers, tanks, and nuclear missiles reminiscent of the Cold War. This year is the 60th Anniversary of the PRC, and the Chinese government is determined to dazzle the world with some artistic “shock and awe.” The parade is expected to showcase some of China’s newest long-range missiles and other advanced weapons systems.
At first the preparations were rather entertaining. We live across from one of Beijing’s leading high schools, about two blocks north of Chang’an Avenue on the west side of town. Starting halfway through the summer, every morning at 7am we were awoken to the high-decibel routine of students practicing for their role in the parade, an exercise that continued uninterrupted through 10am. As I was writing my blog posts on North Korea, I actually had inspiration in the form of a miniature Mass Games taking place outside my window every day. The students lined up in columns, seven or eight of them that filled the school’s entire soccer stadium, and flipped colored cards (just like their North Korean counterparts) in response to their teacher’s sharp orders over the loudspeaker. Later they would practice the same motions in sync with the songs that will be part of the ceremony. I heard rousing patriotic classics like “We Are the Heirs of Communism” and “Love My China” over and over again so many times I ended up whistling them to myself in the shower. We marveled at how these kids could devote such a large part of their summer to standing for hours in formation endlessly performing the same routines.
Children weren’t the only ones singing. A few of our friends who work for state-owned enterprises (SOEs), such as China Telecom, told us how their companies had organized singing competitions in preparation for the Big Day. Each employee had to choose a patriotic song to perform. Over the past few weeks, they seem to be devoting substantial work hours to organized singing practice and rounds of competition.
Across the street from our apartment, kitty-corner to the school, is a small park (perhaps half a football field in size) surrounding an ancient temple. At the end of August, this pleasant little park suddenly sprouted row upon row of porta-potties, many dozens of them, so that nothing but porta-potties (all of them locked) could be seen from end to end. The overnight transformation of the “Toilet Temple,” as we came to call it, was the first ominous sign that the Powers That Be had Big Plans for our neighborhood’s role in the upcoming festivities. The second sign was the repeated calls we started getting from the police. They would ask my wife (who is a Chinese national) whether she had a foreigner residing at our apartment, who I was, and whether I was renting. At first we thought they might be tracking down informal tenants who had avoided paying rental tax. But then they began asking what my plans were during the October 1st holiday.
Starting in September, the government ordered full-scale rehearsals to take place every weekend on Chang’an Avenue itself. As we watched out our window at the students marching forth excitedly from their stadium assembly point, we had little notion what lay in store for us. We knew there would be traffic chaos to be anticipated and avoided. We knew there might be loud overflights by jet fighters screaming across the city sky. It was kind of exciting, though. I even asked my university, where I teach, whether they had any tickets allotted to them that might allow me to witness the parade up close. They said no, that because of security concerns, tickets were extremely hard to come by.
Around 8pm on the evening of the second rehearsal, my wife asked me if I could run to Starbuck’s to grab her a hot milk. I hadn’t had any dinner, so I figured I’d grab a McDonald’s or KFC while I was out. As I left our apartment, I noticed the streets — dark by that hour — were quite deserted. I hadn’t gone 10 feet outside our front gate when a soldier — not the typical scruffy security guards, not even a policeman, but a soldier — quick-marched across the street to intercept me. “You can’t be out walking tonight,” he politely but firmly told me. I explained to him that I lived in the apartment building and just needed to go down the block to nearby the shopping mall to grab a quite bite, then come right back. “No, no no no,” he said, “You can’t come out. You have to stay home.” Even for dinner? He looked bashful, but resolute: “Not possible.” So I marched back upstairs and informed my surprised spouse that I was not to be allowed outside all night long. That was when, more amused and curious than anything else, I sent out the Tweet.
Around 10pm, we heard a great deal of traffic noise outside and poked our heads out our window to take a look. Row upon row of buses stood lined up along every street, at least 50 or so we could see, and probably many more we could not. I realized, at that point, why they had constructed all the porta-potties in our park. Our neighborhood was apparently the assembly point for all of the soldiers after they completed their march, where they would get back on their buses to be taken back to their garrisons outside Beijing. We fell asleep before we could see any of this transpire, but at 4am I woke up and took a look out the window. All of the buses had vanished. The soldiers had come and gone, silently, like phantoms in the night.
The next day I heard many similar stories. There are several major hotels and apartment complexes, some specifically designed for foreigners, all along Chang’an, many of them overlooking the street itself. During the rehearsals, residents were told to stay indoors and not look out their windows or go onto their balconies. The joke is, I don’t think any of this did much good because Phoenix, a popular Mandarin-language satellite channel from Taiwan, apparently placed a camera on one of the balconies and ran live footage of the practice parade on TV all night long.
Last Saturday we had another large-scale rehearsal and I didn’t even bother trying to go outside. All this past week there have been a series of security announcements and measures that have stepped up the sense of a city strangely under siege. On Tuesday, the government imposed tight new security checks on all mail and express packages delivered to Beijing. The next day, the city banned the flying of all kites, balloons, and pet pigeons, and warned citizens to report “any suspicious flying objects.” Authorities also announced that they had set up check points to examine every vehicle entering Beijing at over 200 major road intersections.
Now today comes news that, yesterday evening, a man wielding a large knife stabbed two security guards to death and injured at least 12 more people in rampage just off of Tiananmen Square. I say “news” hesitantly, because Xinhua, China’s official news agency, issued a report online last night and then almost immediately removed it from the Internet. There has been nothing on the print or TV news here at all, and I doubt that 99% of regular people here in Beijing have heard anything about it. But as you can imagine, the incident — strangely reminiscent of the Drum Tower stabbings on the first day of the Olympics — has kicked Chinese security measures into overdrive.
There’s another full-scale rehearsal tonight (Friday). So as of 4pm today, every store in my neighborhood is closed and every street blocked off. Needless to say, I’m confined to my apartment until tomorrow morning. Out my window I can see two PLA soldiers standing at attention at the corner of the park. I wouldn’t make it two steps outside my complex without being stopped. Even under normal circumstances, I’ve taken to carrying my passport and residence permit with me, because I never really know when I could be prevented from returning home.
As I write, tonight’s convoy of military buses is just arriving and our street is filled with the blaring loudspeakers and flashing lights of police cars. Friends on Twitter report tanks rolling past their window along Chang’an. The whole thing — which is likely to get worse in the remaining two weeks leading up to the parade — is not particularly scary (yet), but it does feel odd. It certainly doesn’t feel like the birthday celebration of a confident nation.