China gets the jitters for its birthday party

Click to follow
The Independent Online
TWO WEEKS from today, China will fill the rooftops of central Peking with snipers, disable the city's mobile paging systems and gas supplies and send the tanks into Tiananmen Square.

The tanks will be joined by 500,000 soldiers, children and workers parading through the spruced-up city centre to mark 50 victorious years of Communist rule in China. Such a display of socialist unity sits uneasily with Peking's fast-developing capitalist streak. It comes after a rollercoaster six months for China that has seen confrontations with Nato, the United States, Taiwan and the mystical Falun Gong sect.

The leadership is jittery and looking for possible trouble. As President Jiang Zemin haswarned, maintaining stability is the overwhelming priority for the 1 October celebration. "We should clearly realise that the international situation has changed and there are also some new problems in China which affect stability," he told a gathering of police officers after security forces had rounded up 100,000 criminals in a special campaign.

Parade security will focus on a great swath of the city, running two miles each side of central Tiananmen Square. All office buildings and shopping centres will be vacated by noon on 30 September and a firm exclusion zone enforced for the parade, gala party and fireworks.

Even the well-connected Chang An Club, where Peking's leaders play tennis, only secured permission for its members to be in the building by agreeing to security vetting for all. Members will also have to stay in the building for the full 36 hours of the security cordon.

These elaborate precautions will bring the whole city to a standstill. And that hiatus, with the wave of propaganda and political campaigns emanating from Peking, is fuelling friction between the government and the growing voice of capitalist business. "Frankly speaking, a number of my clients are just fed up. They are growing frustrated at their inability to get down to business, what with the 1 October anniversary and the political campaigns which just keep on, one after the other," said a foreign advertising executive in Peking.

Many Chinese citizens in the capital are similarly frustrated. Tour operators have been badly hit, with a ban on all tour groups visiting the capital for a two-week period around 1 October. This is normally peak season, with numbers up 50 per cent on other times of year. "Imagine what the economic losses are from all this," said one restaurant owner, Zhao Peiyang. "Most of the time we don't pay much attention to these campaigns, but this year there have just been too many to ignore."

The first of Peking's political campaigns came in May after China accused the United States of deliberately bombing its embassy in Belgrade. Anti- US rhetoric had only just cooled when the Taiwanese President, Lee Teng- hui, enraged the mainland by edging towards official independence. Two weeks later, a rattled China turned its sights on a domestic crisis and tried to destroy the Falun Gong sect, which claimed more devotees than the Communist Party itself.

Jean-Pierre Cabestan, director of the French Research Centre on Contemporary China, said: "As China's leadership clearly wants everything to go smoothly for the 50th anniversary celebrations, it is now taking over-cautious methods to ensure there are no disruptions. But there is, of course, a huge contradiction between China's ideological goals and the realities of business here."