By Eric Vanden Bussche
It was a quarter past six on a chilly spring morning in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Despite a line of about 3,500 people, three layers deep, stretching from one side to the other, the mammoth square seemed engulfed in emptiness. Police officers mathematically spaced a few yards apart made sure that the onlookers stood obediently 35 feet from the flagpole.
“Last time we were closer up front,” Liu Hongjun, a factory boss from Jiangsu, whispered to his wife, so as not to disturb the quietude.
As his wife, Zhou Li, reached for her camera in her counterfeit Gucci purse, a vendor approached, offering red flags. Silently, she brushed him away, holding up the flag she had brought from the hotel. As did others around her, she glanced impatiently at her watch.
“There they are!” she finally exclaimed at precisely 6:19, pointing to a procession of soldiers in dark green uniforms. Under the watchful eyes of Mao Zedong’s portrait, the soldiers emerged from Tiananmen Gate across the street from the square as the first rays of sunlight shyly surfaced in the skyline.
Cameras flashed uninterruptedly, trying to capture the celebrity of the ceremony, the raising of the national flag. It was furled, carried on the shoulder of one of the three soldiers leading the procession, followed by 36 soldiers marching in four columns. The momentary chatter of the spectators evaporated in the reverberation of the thuds of the soldiers’ heels as they crossed the Avenue of Eternal Peace.
When the procession reached the pole, the flag was unfurled and gently tossed to catch the breeze. As the taped strains of the national anthem blasted from sound boxes on the chandelier-shaped lampposts, the flag began its 2 minute and 7 second ascent to the top of the pole, timed to match the rising of the sun above the horizon.
“There is a religiosity about it,” said John Larkin, a consultant in Washington who was in Beijing on a business trip. “As a Catholic, I sense the same kind of feeling here among the Chinese as I have in church.”
To capitalize on Beijing’s growing tourism industry, since May 1, 1991, the flag has been raised every day at sunrise. For the Chinese, traveling more in prosperous times, witnessing the ceremony has become akin to the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, said Li Jun, a travel agent at China International Travel Service.
The pomp of the ceremony is increasingly appealing to foreigners as well, in particular on the first day of every month when the military band plays the national anthem.
Hotels and guide books list it as an experience that allows foreigners to observe the country’s diversity while mingling with out-of-town tourists.
“Many American and European tourists are really enthusiastic about getting up early in the morning to watch it, especially during summertime” said Li. “But during winter or early spring, the weather is a little unpleasant so they prefer to sleep longer.”
Maybe that explains why on that spring morning Larkin was one of the few white faces in the crowd. His friends who had agreed the night before to meet him at 5:20 a.m. in the hotel lobby didn’t show up.
According to the administrative office of Tiananmen Square, attendance builds during the fall, reaching its peak for the National Day festivities on Oct. 1, which attract as many as 250,000 people. But like many government pronouncements, this one, too, is questioned by Westerners.
“There is no possible way that so many people could fit in that area,” said Melody Kadenko, a program manager at the University of Washington in Seattle who watched the ceremony a day before National Day a few years ago. “How could they maintain order?”
Kadenko and her husband, Ken Ludwa, woke up at 5 a.m. to arrive in Tiananmen Square before sunrise. “During that time of the day when the sun is just coming out, it is so peaceful and solemn,” she said, adding that the square had been decorated with red and gold banners, yellow flowers, a celebration “almost like Christmas.”
How the ceremony can be viewed mirrors the changing political climate. In 1991, spectators clustered chaotically around the flagpole, with the most audacious crouching with their cameras only a few yards from the marching soldiers. In recent years, however, security has been stepped up, with tourists being kept farther away. On some occasions, such as the death of former Communist Party leader Zhao Ziyang in January, groups of tourists can enter the square only escorted by guards.
As more foreigners establish their presence in the crowd, the soldiers are also trained to deal with them. Every week, they learn English phrases from university students.
“We taught them the basics, such as ‘Thank you for your cooperation’ and ‘Don’t spit on the ground,’” said Shen Lanying, a legal consultant who spent a month teaching the soldiers while in college.
As the soldiers marched out through Tiananmen Gate after the ceremony on that spring day, 18 primary school students from Shanxi province clad in red caps gathered in front of the flagpole. “My dad said that watching the flag-raising ceremony is more exciting than visiting the Great Wall,” said 9-year-old Zhao Shuqi, who proudly boasted that she was the first person in her family to ever visit the capital.
“Everyone in the country learns that Tiananmen Square is the center of China,” explained Li, adding that for Chinese living in western provinces, witnessing the event symbolizes prestige. “If they come to Beijing and don’t see the Great Wall, they’ll feel disappointed. But missing the ceremony in Tiananmen Square is the ultimate disappointment.”