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Thursday, September 30, 1999 Published at 14:44 GMT 15:44 UK

Eyewitness: A nation's nervous rejoicing

The Tiananmen gate is one of Beijing's sights decorated for the anniversary

By World Affairs Editor John Simpson in Beijing and Dalian

This doesn't exactly seem like a time of national rejoicing.

Along much of the avenue which leads east and west through the centre of Beijing to Tiananmen Square there are restrictions on who can walk where, and even on who can look out of their windows.

China: 50 years of communism / Revolution Glossary
The reason, if you bother to ask, is national security. In other words, the habitual nervousness which in the old days affected all Marxist-Leninist regimes still affects the largest and most important one left in the world.

The oddity is that the Chinese Communist Party, having jettisoned just about every aspect of Marxism-Leninism except the methods by which it stays in power, would probably have a higher approval rating from its people than any other.

After all, none of the old Soviet bloc governments managed to provide their citizens with the promise of genuine prosperity. China has.

Confidence in Dalian

In provincial cities like Dalian, once called Port Arthur, situated on the north-east coast of China, there is an apparently genuine and widespread satisfaction with the way things are going.

[ image:  ]
The mayor, Bo Xilai, one of the so-called Princelings whose father is a top figure in the Party and an old friend of Mao Zedong, is genuinely popular. He has improved the appearance of the city out of all recognition in the past few years, establishing parks and fountains everywhere and overseeing the building of attractive and well-maintained blocks of flats for working-class people.

In other words, it is perfectly possible for individual Communist party figures to become figures of respect and even affection.

But there are not many of those.

The rest of the Party, knowing it is only in power by virtue of Mao Zedong's defeat of the Nationalists 50 years ago, is distinctly nervous about the ordinary masses of the people, and dislikes any kind of gathering which might lead to trouble.

All threats to its authority, whether from political dissidents or religious devotees, have to be crushed.

Privately as well as publicly, few officials here will deny that terrible things have gone on in this country in the past 50 years. The figure of 30 million deaths from starvation and deliberate state persecution is not publicly accepted by the Party, but it may well be accurate.

And it takes no account whatever of the tens of millions whose lives were wrecked by the horrors of Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution in the ten years from 1967.

Fading fears

That revolution, like the one in 1949, was announced from the Gate of Heavenly Peace, overlooking Tiananmen Square.

[ image: In Beijing's Tiananmen Square a huge billboard reads 'Celebrate the 50th anniversary of the People's Republic of China']
In Beijing's Tiananmen Square a huge billboard reads 'Celebrate the 50th anniversary of the People's Republic of China'
The occupation of the Square by the students in 1989, which ended with the massacre of 4 June, was carried out by young people who believed passionately that Marxism-Leninism was a dead ideology, empty of any spiritual or inspirational qualities. Many of them, and most of their parents, still had terrible memories of the Cultural Revolution.

Now, 10 years on, those memories have faded and another generation is growing up which remembers only the better times of the 1980s and 90s.

"This is a really free country," an articulate young woman explained to me in a Dalian disco, "We are free to earn good money, and do and say what we like."

The search for spirituality, which the Tiananmen students were so concerned with, seems to have been forgotten.

Which makes it so strange that the Chinese government should be so nervous about its security on a day when, if the official media are to be believed, is one of national rejoicing.

The fact is, of course, that no one much cares, one way or the other. The Communist Party has told them that they should concentrate on making themselves rich.

But even that doesn't seem to give the government any confidence. And the knowledge that everyone waving a red flag and chanting the Party's praises is there because they've got to be simply increases the sense of insecurity.

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