Posted by: Dexter Roberts on October 1, 2009
China’s 60th anniversary celebration, in many ways was a huge success. Beijing no doubt wowed its own populace with its two-hour-plus colorful, well rehearsed extravaganza of synchronized performers plus military might as well as countless floats heralding things like China’s indigenous innovation, the officially-proclaimed unity of its 56 ethnic minorities, as well the Party’s goal of building a harmonious society. In a nod to the past, President Hu Jintao wearing a Chinese Zhongshan suit reviewed the troops from the back of an open black Red Flag limousine, calling out periodically: “Hello comrades!” Later speaking from the rostrum overlooking the square, Hu said Chinese “’were full of confidence’ in the bright prospects of the great rejuvenation of the nation.” A highlight of the celebration that began at 10 a.m. was the finale when huge flocks of pigeons were first set free, then tens of thousands of children released of a sea of colorful balloons over a sunny, blue-skied Tiananmen Square.
China’s show of its growing military strength—including fighter jets and bombers veering in tight formation over downtown Beijing and helicopter squadrons buzzing overhead (151 aircraft in total), as well as 56 phalanxes goose stepping in tight formation, and countless numbers of tanks rattling through the heart of Beijing loaded with 52 types of weapons systems (including nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles on 18 launch vehicles—Xinhua reporting that “China National Day parade crescendoed when nuclear weapon appears”)—certainly got the attention of many government’s around the word; it too no doubt reminded them of China’s increasingly rapid move to the center of the world stage.
But in at least one, relatively small area—its handling of China-based foreign correspondents—Beijing’s record wasn’t so good. Indeed, general confusion reigned for most about how a reporter actually could ensure he or she was invited to the parade, and so able to cover China’s big day. As the Foreign Correspondent Club of China complained in a notice it sent out earlier today, there were “severe problems with the allocation of passes for China’s Oct. 1 National Day parade, and a lack of transparency about the process. Journalists who did get passes got them late at night, after many hours of waiting. Other passes remained unclaimed after correspondents had left in frustration. Some members who did wait were nonetheless excluded entirely.“
I know how many will respond: Who cares? China had a great celebration, millions of Chinese and others around the world saw it and enjoyed the spectacle, the argument will be made. Yes, I agree there is some truth to that. But as a long time China-based foreign correspondent (so obviously biased), I would argue that Beijing ill serves itself by messing up on basics like this. And journalists, by the nature of their job, can project their voices pretty far. Here is my own little story that I must admit ends happily (I attended the event and observed the show from a prime viewing spot—on a platform abutting onto the square, just to the east of the Tiananmen Rostrum. Indeed, the location was far better than that allotted to foreign journalists during the 50th anniversary celebrations that I too attended back in 1999.)
By mid evening, I wasn’t feeling very optimistic. Although television reporters had been informed much earlier just how many people they could send to cover the military parade from Tiananmen Square, most print journalists (me included) had no idea whether we would get invited to watch the parade live. One colleague from another magazine told me the dreary facts as he had heard them: TV journalists had been given first priority to attend (no surprise given the power of the moving image). Wire services came next, followed by newspapers, and finally, in last place in terms of getting invited, were those of us who worked at magazines. The logic, perhaps correct, was that the Chinese authorities could guarantee most coverage and impact in this fashion.
Responding to a friend’s query around 8 p.m. on whether I had gotten an invitation to attend the event the next morning, I write back via text message: “No, still nothing.. It is all a little ridiculous.” By 10 p.m. I am watching a variety show on national broadcaster CCTV heralding China’s 60 years, and have resigned myself to watching the next morning’s parade on the tube as well. Finally, just as I am readying myself for sleep, my mobile rings: “We have your permit. Come to the media center immediately to pick it up,” a young woman tells me just after 1 a.m. “Then we will meet at 6 am to board busses to the square.”
I immediately feel my earlier irritation suddenly vanish. I am going! But just before 2 a.m., I have a sudden panic attack: with most of the city already locked down, how can I possibly make it to staging point at the media center, far off on the western side of Beijing. Back on the phone with the media center and a helpful man (they aren’t sleeping there either) is suggesting I drive in a big loop across north Beijing to avoid potential road blocks. By 4:30 a.m. I am on the road navigating slowly through a foggy Beijing (I will be thoroughly impressed much later this morning when the fog clears and a beautiful sunny day emerges, perfect for a parade.) By 5 a.m. I am at the center, have my pass, and am now sipping coffee in the lobby surrounded by equally groggy journalists, many of which appear to be from Hong Kong. The 6 a.m. security check is the final test: I make it through and find my bus—number 39. I see a few familiar faces of other Beijing-based foreign journalists. Everyone looks exhausted—it is clear few of us have slept. That’s okay though, we’ve made it all of us are thinking; we are going to China’s 60th celebration.