On Thursday, the People’s Republic of China turns 60 with a show of military might including 108 upgraded missiles, female pilots manning fighter jets and soldiers marching 116 steps per minute and blinking in 40-second gaps.
Oh yes, and if Beijingers living on the parade route, the Avenue of Eternal Peace, try to peek out of their windows or balconies to see all this, they may mistakenly be shot — as a potential terror threat.
Former soldier He Ping (92) remembers a gentler but tougher time on October 1, 1949, when he watched from a spartan Tiananmen Square as Chairman Mao Zedong proclaimed China a republic. “The days of one gun and a bowl of rice gruel are gone,” remembers He Ping, whose name means ‘peace’.
Sixty years later, there will be no mass camaraderie as the Square is sealed for the 14th parade since 1949. Beijing’s sprawling 120-gate airport will shut for three hours.
Compared to India at 60 in 2007, the mood in China is more nationalistic. Beijingers have silently accepted the unprecedented security orders, including hints to stock food because miles of roads and subway lines will be temporarily sealed.
“We have military satellites, advanced jets, new battle tanks, sophisticated warships and subs,” defence minister Liang Guanglie recently announced, emphasising that some weapons top world standards.
New Delhi will observe the parade for signs of China’s latest defence strategy, but Beiji-ng is more worried about keeping its grip on domestic peace.
China’s Cabinet has again called for ‘public order and stability’. The tension is so high that several supermarkets have stopped selling knives since recent stabbing attacks.
He Ping remembers China, the world’s second-largest luxury market, minus the malls. “The government gave us clothes, socks, shoes and a toothbrush,” he told HT in Beijing’s version of New York’s Central Park.
He and wife Li (74) sat watching stalls selling hot dogs and toy Fords, and brides posing in strapless white gowns instead of buttoned-up silk. The couple brought a flask of hot water, a throwback to the frugal days of Mao when tea was luxury.
“This year, China is expected to overtake Japan’s economy,” said political scientist Wang Zhengxu at a recent lecture.
“After 1949, there was a big change. We could eat noodles, tomatoes and cabbage,” He Ping said, describing his impression of China’s transformation from mass poverty to the world’s third-largest economy.
Li proclaimed: “China has an awkward history, but now no country can invade us.”
In the 1950s, Li’s neighbourhood shared one phone. Now they have a cellphone. “We were too poor to visit the Great Wall,” Li said. Now they live in an apartment in Beijing’s Silicon Valley, a village till the early ‘90s.
“A new open attitude is the biggest change,” said Guo (42), at the park with her six-year-old son. A collegian studying English walked past, in a sweatshirt declaring ‘open the window of your mind’.
Attitudes are opening, but Beijing’s streets were eerily empty by Wednesday. Police have advised residents to watch the parade and 3-D fireworks display on TV. Five-star hotels on the parade route are closed till Friday or reserved for official guests.
Some subway lines on the parade route will stand still when the secretive military that makes India so nervous marches past Mao’s photograph at Tiananmen Square.
For the next close-up of China’s military, wait for October 2019.