The flag flaps; the crowd shrugs

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The Independent Online
Every day at sunrise in Peking, a large crowd gathers around the flagpole in Tiananmen Square to see the flag being hoisted, accompanied by the dramatic strains of the Chinese national anthem played on loud speakers.

But at 7am on Thursday, the regular flag-raising ceremony was transformed into a subtle disclosure. Upon reaching the top of the flagpole, the bright red flag with its yellow stars immediately began falling back to half mast. A moment of confusion followed, then the meaning dawned. "Ah, I understand, Deng must be dead," said one man, as much to himself as to his three companions on the windswept open square. Thus did a handful of China's 1.3 billion people learn that Deng Xiaoping had died the night before.

In Tiananmen Square, word spread quickly through the crowd. A few people seemed genuinely stunned, but more seemed unsurprised. Those old enough to remember the death in 1976 of Mao Tse-tung could not help but see the contrast. "When Mao died, you absolutely had to look like you were really distraught. If you didn't you would run into all sorts of problems," said one mid-ranking Peking government official .

One illustration of how much things have changed in China since then was the response of a young woman who, upon hearing the news at the flag- raising, put on a display of mock weeping and sobbing before breaking into a wide smile.

After Deng, pages 12, 13

Essay, page 16