Official celebrations included a parade through Beijing’s Chang’an Avenue during the day and dancing at Tiananmen Square in the evening. Photo: Handout
Zhou Xin
Zhou Xin

Among China’s masses: a personal reflection on celebrations at Tiananmen on October 1, 1999

  • China celebrated the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic in 1999 at a critical time for the country
  • Zhou Xin, now an editor at the Post, looks back at his role as one of half a million participants who took part in the official parade

My summer holiday between second and third year at university was cut short by two weeks for a grand project: the 50th anniversary celebration of the People’s Republic of China.

While the commemoration was a top political task, participation was decided in a distinctly apolitical manner – the criteria for inclusion being any second-year student who was above average in height. For that fair and straightforward reason, I was one of half a million people chosen to take part in the day’s grand parade.

The celebration technically included two parts: a parade through Beijing’s Chang’an Avenue during the day and dancing at Tiananmen Square in the evening. I was part of the daytime parade, and the training was pretty dull. We had repeated rehearsals so we could walk in a long, horizontal line at the same speed, in the same rhythm and with the same stride, all while waving a huge green plastic flower and shouting patriotic slogans.

The requirement for students was nothing compared to the People’s Liberation Army – they were the true professionals when it came to striding in formation. We, the masses, were merely amateurs. Nevertheless, it still took two weeks of training at the university campus and a few big group rehearsals to get up to scratch. The first rehearsal, which gathered people from different universities at an open field in a Beijing suburb, was a torture; the toilet was a huge open pit layered with plastic cloth that could be smelled miles away under a beaming summer sun!

The late rehearsals on Chang’an Avenue were much better, and not only because of the portable toilets. The night air was cool and traffic was cleared for parade participants. Beijing’s second ring road – which began to see traffic jams by 1999 – became a racing course for bus drivers. Chang’an Avenue was cleaned and reserved for the chosen participants. Loudspeakers on the street played patriotic songs, with the joyful and optimistic Love My China by Song Zuying one of the most popular.

After rehearsals, the school’s dining hall provided free dumplings and noodles when we returned to campus. And after a hearty meal, we would rush back to our dormitory to give our official T-shirts to our roommates so they could have a free meal, too. I guess that’s one good thing about having no facial recognition technology.

On the big day of October 1, we woke up long before daybreak. Once we arrived at Tiananmen Square, I could see people standing on the Tiananmen building, though it was too far in the distance to see faces clearly. I recall thinking the one in the middle must be former president Jiang Zemin as he was wearing a Mao jacket while his comrades were wearing suits.

“Raise alertness, protect the country,” I shouted the slogan loudly and proudly.

Some half a million participants took part in China’s 50th anniversary celebrations in 1999 in Beijing. Photo: Handout

It was quite disappointing to learn later that China’s state television broadcast barely showed the faces of the masses. Looking back at the footage, the parade looked quite messy, especially when compared to the soldiers that featured before us. The video shows a sea of plastic flowers and banners covered in slogans, with every individual clad in the same white T-shirt appearing as just another drop in the ocean.

Twenty years on, I still recall the year of 1999 with fondness. In May, anger against United States imperialism filled the university when news broke that an American-led Nato force had bombed the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia and killed three Chinese journalists. In November, my campus, which was affiliated with the foreign trade ministry, was filled with hope and joy when Beijing and Washington reached an agreement about China’s entry into the World Trade Organisation.

China today is much richer and more developed than in 1999. Most of the tall brothers I walked with, or gave my T-shirt, have taken different paths. They are now accountants, traders, business managers, professional investors and Chinese government officials. In the mighty currents of history, the masses are often shaped and pushed and, in turn, the masses also shape history.