The roads have been emptied. Massive security is in place. Around 8,00,000 security volunteers are trawling Beijing’s streets. Even the skies have been cleared — of airplanes, pigeons and rain clouds.
The People’s Republic of China is all set to mark its 60th anniversary. On Thursday, a military parade of thousands of soldiers will make its way through Beijing’s Changan Avenue, “the Avenue of Heavenly Peace”, and President Hu Jintao will address a carefully screened crowd of 30,000 in the city’s Tiananmen Square.
China’s National Day celebrations will, however, take place away from the gaze of the Beijing public. Citing security concerns, authorities have closed off the entire route of the parade, and Beijing vice-mayor Ji Lin said the city’s residents will have to settle for “watching it on television”.
Among those watching will be Lu Dayei (86) who has been a firsthand witness to the PRC’s history.
For older Chinese, Thursday will mark six turbulent decades, from the tough 1950s when famines devastated the country and the violent Cultural Revolution (1966-76) to the unprecedented economic progress following the country’s “opening up” in 1978.
Mr. Lu stood on Tiananmen Square on October 1, 1949 when Mao Zedong addressed the nation, proclaiming the founding of the PRC. He suffered through the hard first decade, when food was scarce and the country still reeled from the devastations wrought by the civil war between the Kuomintang and the Communists. “Those were hard days, which are difficult to imagine now,” Mr. Lu recalls. “We would see bodies lying everywhere on the street, hunger everywhere. We couldn’t get vegetables in Beijing.”
The decade after, when Mao launched his Cultural Revolution, was possibly China’s most turbulent time. In the violence and chaos unleashed by Mao’s “Red Guards” ostensibly to “overthrow the elite”, tens of thousands lost their lives, lost their homes and saw their families torn apart. For a decade, the country came to a standstill as schools closed, homes burned and mobs ran riot, all in the name of a “political revolution”.
Zhou Youfei (88) remembers being taken away from his wife, who he did not see for most of that turbulent decade. “Because I spoke English, they thought I was an American spy and locked me up,” he says. He spent the decade in prison, suffering beatings and torture.
Li Tian (62) said Thursday would bring mixed emotions for her. Unlike her children or grandchildren, she did not have the opportunity to go to school. She spent her twenties working in the fields and villages of rural China, where millions of Chinese were sent by Mao during the Cultural Revolution “to learn from the farmers” and their colleges were closed down. In those strange times, education was considered an elite luxury and frowned upon. Her mother, who came from an elite, old Beijing family, lost her family estate and was “humiliated” by the purges of the revolution, she recalls. She would later take her own life.
But the troubles of the first three turbulent decades of the PRC have been wiped clear from the memories — and textbooks — of today’s young Chinese. On Thursday, it is in some sense the last three decades, and the unprecedented progress brought by Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, that is being celebrated. The reforms turned around the lives of those like Mr. Zhou, who says he “went from being a tortured prisoner to heading an electronics factory”.
Ms. Li, now a practising Christian, heads a small family church in north Beijing, where a few dozen worshippers quietly gather every Sunday, in a country which still tightly restricts religious freedoms.
“The biggest difference now,” she says, “is we don’t have to worry about basic things, like food, or my family’s safety. Now, my worries are different, my problems are spiritual. And, I guess, that is progress.”