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New Year revellers

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Happy New Year!

Trafalgar Square will be the place to be in London eight hours from now; five hours after that the party in Time Square will be getting close to fever pitch.  Great cities tend to have great public spaces from where to celebrate New Year.  It’s not unreasonable to think that Tiananmen Square, perhaps the biggest public space in the world and arguably the most well-known, would hold a New Year’s party commensurate with its stature.  I knew that wouldn't be the case of course, but nevertheless I felt compelled to be “there” at the momentous moment when the clock ticked over to 2008, “China’s year” – the year when China will really show the world what it can do; when it will throw open its door to reveal its incredible recent achievements to an awestruck world.  Hundreds of thousands will come here to see the Olympic Games – China’s so-called “coming out” party – at first hand; while billions will watch their TV sets in open-mouthed disbelief.  No pressure, then, to make sure the party goes well.

      

Jianguomen – the improbably-wide avenue that runs east of Tiananmen was strangely quiet.  The large pavements to the north were even quieter.  Of the few people braving the dangerously-cold night, most were walking away from Tiananmen, towards me.  One of the people stood out somewhat because he was wearing a KFC plastic bag on his head, but otherwise seemed to be dressed normally.  The Beijing-cold really does do strange things to people.  I reached the underpass that connects the north side of Jianguomen with the subway that leads to the square and descended – grateful to be out of the wind.  At 15 minutes to 2008, I was the only person heading to the square it seemed.  The soldier at the start of the tunnel that leads to the square itself was standing behind a rope.

       “It’s closed,” he said.

       “What’s closed?”

       “Tiananmen Square is closed.”

       The soldiers that guard the area are not the most talkative people and so I didn’t ask “why?”.  

       “When will it re-open?”

       “At 6am tomorrow morning.”

       I walked quickly to the Gate of Heavenly Peace – and looked at the square with my binoculars.  The soldier had been spot-on.  Tiananmen Square, the public space that has held more than a hundred thousand people on many occasions was deserted except for a solitary soldier, standing bolt upright somewhere near the centre of the Square, facing into the bitingly cold north wind.

       At least there were people there – perhaps 150 of them; mostly young, and more than 95 per cent Chinese.

       It was now ten minutes to midnight. 

       Three friends near to me were talking animatedly, clearly excited at the prospect of seeing in the New Year.

       Ori, a local Beijinger, is studying law here; Walt and Aaron, from Shandong and Gansu provinces, are studying Arabic at Beijing Foreign Language University.      

       “It’s going to be a great year for us, and a great year for China,” said Walt. “It’s so exciting!  We’ve got the Olympics to look forward to.  That’s so cool!  ...We all want to be volunteers, but can’t because we are first year students.  That’s such a shame.  Only older students can apply to be volunteers.”

       Walt cheered up when I told him that there was nothing to stop him and his friends putting on Olympic T-shirts and going to help lost-looking foreigners navigate around one of the biggest cities on the planet.

       “That’s such a good idea,” he said.

       “Hey, what time is it?  I thought there would be fireworks here,” said Walt, “…After all this is Tiananmen Square, the very centre of Beijing.”

       I looked at my watch. 

“Two minutes and twenty seconds to go,” I informed him. 

       “No fireworks,” he said resignedly. 

       Walt and his friends really couldn’t work out why the central place, in the political centre of China, the “central country” (the literal meaning of Zhongguo), on the eve of the year when it would be centre stage, couldn’t have made more of an effort.  

       A small group of young people twenty yards from where we were standing became more animated.  I looked at my watch (clearly their watch was fast).  A few seconds later, another group increased their volume.  And then another; and another group…

       Still thirty seconds to go.

       The problem with celebrating the New Year at Tiananmen is that there is no public clock to tell you when the “moment” has arrived.

       My watch was 90 seconds fast, but at least I knew that. 

       I counted down the seconds.  “…Three, TWO, ONE!” 

       “A very Happy New Year to you and to China,” I said, shaking the three friends’ hands.

       “I’ve got a beer; we can share it,” said Aaron, taking out a bottle of Tiger beer from his bag.  No one had an opener though, and I eventually persuaded a very determined Aaron that it wasn’t a good idea to try to start the New Year by opening the bottle with his teeth.  Aaron’s Arabic name is Farook and I mused that a Chinese with the alternative name of Aaron – who, as you will recall from RE lessons, was Abraham’s son – would make the perfect Middle East peace envoy.         

       Walt, whose Arabic name is Abraheem, is from Jinan in Shandong province – the hometown of the “Gao brothers”, whose art is apparently causing such a stir all over China.   Walt talked excitedly about his plans for the future.  He hoped to go to an American university, after graduating in Beijing, to study an MBA: “Somewhere beginning with ‘H’ or ‘Y’,” he confided.  But, “of course” he would return to China after completing his post-graduate studies.  In the meantime, he told me, “It would be great to use my Arabic to help others,” and was looking forward to perhaps travelling to Darfur in Sudan, to work with China-sponsored charities helping Aids sufferers.

       As for the “famous” Gao brothers from his hometown.  No, he had never heard of them.

       We exchanged contact details and promised to keep in touch.  I really want to follow these three friend’s progress.

I spoke to several other people about their views of 2008 and the future.  Everyone was gushingly optimistic.  I know that the sample is hopelessly skewed – the small number of people who decided to be there despite the atrocious weather can’t possibly be representative of the entire China cohort’s opinions.  Or could they?  Thus far on my travels I have heard very little to make me think that the vast majority of young people, even those that are not “gushingly optimistic” are nothing less than fully determined to make the most of their futures.

       As another group of three friends from Henan province told me: 

“This is our future, we have to make the most of it.”  Those three had travelled up to Beijing from Tianjin, where they are at university, just to be at Tiananmen on the occasion of the New Year.  They would take the train back “tomorrow,” because they’ve got exams to prepare for. 
       “It’s just wonderful to be here,” they said.

“We simply had to be at this special place for this special moment”.

I am sure that Ori, Walt and Aaron; the three friends from Henan; and most of the others who had braved the elements to see the New Year in at the “Gate of Heavenly Peace” – the literal translation of Tiananmen – had come back for the flag-raising ceremony (which is performed at every sunrise).

       The transformation could not have been greater.  From a solitary soldier who was guarding the Square last night to a throng of several thousand people – perhaps more (it’s impossible to estimate  large crowds accurately when you are on the same level in the middle of the crowd). 

The morning had got off to a bad start.  I had been in a scrimmage of would-be spectators, at the underpass I was at last night, trying to break through the cordon of soldiers, whose orders clearly were to allow no more people through to the north part of the Square.  The Square is almost a kilometre long and I had to walk most of its length before I found a crossing point onto it. 

       At 7.36am, the time of sunrise in Beijing on the first day of January 2008, the white-gloved soldier with a boyish face cast forth the flag with a theatrical flourish.  His stiff right arm and outstretched fingers stayed suspended in mid-air for a moment, until the first stanza of the national anthem – Yiyongjun Jinxingqu (March of the Volunteers) – seemed to restart his body.  As the flag was hoisted, a small group of young friends near to me sang nervously and very quietly along to the tune played by the army band:

       Qilai! Buyuan zuo nuli de renmen! (Arise! All who refuse to be slaves!).” 

       Emboldened by the sound of a few other singers, they upped the volume a little:

       “Let our flesh and blood become our new Great Wall!  As the Chinese nation faces its greatest peril; All forcefully expend their last cries.  Arise! Arise! Arise! (…Qilai! Qilai! Qilai!).”

       The choir had not reached critical mass, however, and it quickly faded away at the start of the repeat performance of the anthem.  The crowd were strangely quiet, even reverential, as if they were observing something profound – something they would be able to tell their grandchildren about: that they were there as the flag was raised on the Olympic year – China’s Year.

       As the flag neared the top of the tall flag pole, there was a sudden burst of excitement as a flock of thousands of white doves exploded into the air from behind the Gate of Heavenly Peace.

Friends
"It's going to be a great year for us, and a great year for China."

Flag-raising on Olympics' opening day
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