Tidewater Traveler - March 2010


Please Don’t Come To My Birthday Party!
George W. Sellers


I just heard the clunk of the landing gear folding into the wings as the view of the great dragon and turtle are already obscured by haze and smog. The flight time to X’ian will be about 90 minutes, and (are you listening, U.S. Airways?) a meal is being served. Further (are you listening, United Airlines?), my baggage is taking this trip with me free of an additional fee.
The dragon and turtle are huge architectural accomplishments whose construction were completed in time for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, China. The dragon is a massive, flowing sculpture of steel, glass and open space that serves as passenger terminal number three at the Beijing Capital International Airport. A closer look at the triangular scales of the rust-colored dragon reveals them to be hundreds of functional roof windows.
The turtle encloses a train station and shelters thousands of parked cars within the airport complex. Both buildings are said to be a blend of ancient Feng Shui and modern digital technology.
But this article is not about dragons, turtles or airplanes, or even airports. This is about a colossal sixtieth birthday party for the People’s Republic of China, an event said to be the largest celebration ever to be held in China – spectacular and superlative in every way. And, now that I am settled back in my seat departing Beijing, this is the first opportunity I have had to contemplate the events of the past 24 hours.
It seems that October 1, 2009 marked six decades since the “Liberation of China.” Perhaps only a political historian can grasp a thorough understanding of what the Chinese people were liberated from in 1949, and to what their liberation led. Nevertheless, the people will celebrate. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that “the people” will not celebrate – the government leaders will celebrate.
Unless participating in the presentation or unless a government official, friend or VIP of the Communist party, the people are told to stay away. Even residents of apartments along the parade route have been directed to stay off their balconies and to stay away from windows in their own homes during practices and during the real celebration.
Like most Communist celebrations, military armament and personnel will be proudly displayed. Thousands of tanks, personnel carriers, missile transporters and soldiers will follow familiar routes through Beijing to reach the largest government square in the world, Tiananmen Square. Hundreds of thousands of college students, known as volunteers, and wave after wave of military personnel have been pressed into service to create the impression of a joyous celebration.
Yesterday afternoon, several folks from the tour group were assembled in my room on the ninth floor of the Capital Hotel, faces pressed to the large window that looks from the back of the hotel across central Beijing about a block and a half from Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. The late afternoon sky was hazy. We were in lockdown.
A written notice had been delivered to each guest room in the hotel the day before, advising us that we would not be allowed to leave the hotel after 4 p.m. until 6 a.m. the next day (today). Occupants of all residences and hotels in central Beijing had been ordered to remain indoors while the government staged a massive practice session for the big birthday bash.
Because it had been our last night in Beijing and we had completed all of our touring, what could have been a dreadful disruption had become a fascination to my tour group. Hotel staff had been denied departure to their homes at the end of the work day; they were expected to remain at the hotel through the night. Security guards in the lobby removed any notion of stepping out the front door of the hotel. Hotel guests had been admonished to stay away from windows and to keep drapes closed in rooms.
But there we were, our faces pressed to the glass in curiosity. Nine floors below and less than half a block away we could see a concrete courtyard surrounded by a block wall. Within the walled area were several dozen uniformed young men standing erect in regimented lines. The windows were closed – sealed – but we could clearly hear the sound of a chorus of voices rising from the military assembly. There were not the strains of “Happy Birthday to you...” The sound was that of a robust, military-style chant – not harmonious – more like controlled, a cappella, unison shouting.
Later I learned that some of the guests whose rooms faced the street in front of the hotel had seen hundreds of buses filling the streets, thousands of young people – possibly college students shipped in from all over the country – walking toward Tiananmen Square to participate in the big practice.
I also learned that hotel security had come to at least one room with a front view directing the guests to close their curtains and refrain from looking out the window. From my window at the rear of the hotel, the glow of lights at Tiananmen Square could be seen throughout the night.
Being fascinated by this display of dictatorial power, I had decided to send an e-mail to some friends back in the USA describing our lockdown experience. Imagine my surprise the next morning to learn that my e-mail had been censored and blocked from being transmitted out of the country. I should not have been surprised because just a few days earlier I had discovered that my attempt to provide a daily log of the two-week China tour, using Facebook and Twitter, would not be successful because the communist government had blocked social networking access throughout the entire country.
A few days earlier we had walked across Tiananmen Square and had seen some of the preparations for the birthday bash. Fifty-six huge, colorful pillars had been erected along three sides of the square. Each gold-capped pillar had been decorated to depict cultural aspects of each of China’s 56 minority groups. A massive JumboTron digital display screen was in place and being tested. Bleachers for VIPs were under construction. Armed security was abundantly present.
It was to be a show of spectacular magnitude, but the people were not invited. Unless a participant or VIP, the people of China were to view the spectacle at a distance – on state-sponsored TV at home or perhaps in a shopping mall.
Being locked down in Beijing was innocent enough, but it was a wonderful reminder for me of the gift of freedom that we in the USA enjoy!
May all your travels be happy and safe!

George Sellers is a Certified Travel Counselor and Accredited Cruise Counselor who operates the popular travel Web site and travel planning service SellersTravel.com. Comments or suggestions about Tidewater Traveler articles may be directed to George@SellersTravel.com.