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China takes extreme security measures for parade

Apartments on the route are evacuated, businesses are forced to close early and transit lines are suspended as China prepares to celebrate its 60th anniversary. 'Are we having fun?' one critic asks.

September 30, 2009|Barbara Demick

BEIJING — This is a parade that demands state-level security. Discipline. Extreme secrecy.

Ordinary people will not be allowed anywhere near the parade route in Beijing on Thursday, when the People's Republic of China marks the 60th anniversary of its founding with a military parade.

That applies even to people who live in the neighborhood: Entire apartment buildings along the route toward Tiananmen Square are being evacuated to prevent residents from watching. Cameras and binoculars are forbidden in many locales.

As the city prepares for the parade, Beijing feels more like a city under martial law than the dynamic capital that wowed the world during the 2008 Summer Olympics.

The more than 80,000 students marching in the parade have been forced to sign secrecy agreements that prohibit them from talking to reporters (Chinese and foreign alike), sending text messages or posting blogs or photographs of parade rehearsals.

Supermarkets have been ordered not to sell sharp knives, and the mailing of soap, toothpaste and liquids within Beijing is forbidden, apparently out of fear that they could be used to make explosives. SWAT teams with armored personnel carriers are stationed at key intersections.

People who live near the parade route are forbidden to have guests in their homes or use their balconies. Pigeon fanciers have been told to keep their birds grounded.

Even kite-flying has been banned since mid-September.

"Are we having fun?" demanded a sarcastic Li Datong, a former editor at the China Youth Daily who is one of the few who have spoken out publicly against the parade. "Does this look like a country at peace?

"The National Day celebration is supposed to be a happy occasion, but this certainly doesn't feel like it."

When it comes to celebrating the modern country's communist roots, the cowboy capitalism and media-savvy youth of 21st century China take a back seat to tradition. Michael Anti, a Chinese blogger and social critic, says the inconvenience posed by the parade is not incidental but part of the message.

"The Communist Party wants to show the young people it still has control. They're saying in effect, 'Even though you might have Twitter, I'm the one with power,' " Anti said. "The focus of the parade is to get people to act in a collectivist manner, like North Koreans."

In contrast, during the Olympics organizers made an effort to include people in the star-studded opening and closing ceremonies through a lottery that allowed anybody to apply for tickets.

Not this time.

"Those who can watch the show live on location are invited only," Beijing Vice Mayor Ji Lin said last week during a briefing. Representatives of the neighborhoods near the square were among those on the guest list, Ji said.

Journalists received telephone calls this month instructing them not to photograph rehearsals. Japanese journalists with the Kyodo News agency who were filming a rehearsal from a hotel room Sept. 18 complained that Chinese police broke into their room, roughed them up and smashed equipment.

An official speaking on condition of anonymity said security is tighter this year than in 1999 -- the year of the last parade -- because ethnic violence in western China has prompted fear of terrorism.

The inconveniences have been large and small. Rehearsals on weekends over the last month have virtually paralyzed the city. With checkpoints on main roads and public transportation suspended, businesses had to send employees home early and close at an incalculable cost.

When rains delayed a rehearsal one weekend, the exclusive French restaurant Maison Boulud, fully booked for a reception, had to close and refund customers' money.

By this morning, many of the biggest hotels in the city, including the Grand Hyatt and the Raffles Hotel, had been virtually evacuated. On the glass-facade shopping malls along Changanjie, the main avenue passing Tiananmen Square, high-end boutiques like Armani and Tiffany & Co. were also closing down.

Although Beijingers are resigned to the omnipresence of big government, they have begun to grumble, at least among themselves.

"Can't you see how much business we're losing," barked the owner of a store selling cigarettes and drinks near Tiananmen Square.

On a subway platform where hundreds of commuters were stuck trying to get home during an early closing for a rehearsal, a middle-aged man mumbled angrily to a friend, "This parade is a waste of money and brings grief to people."

He then looked around nervously to make sure he hadn't been overheard.

Complaining about the parade is taboo, hence the secrecy agreements that the parade participants were forced to sign. But it's almost impossible in the 21st century to keep students from blogging their discontent, and some criticism has managed to make it onto the Internet.

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