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September 30, 2009

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I Love a Parade

THOUSANDS of Chinese primary, middle school and college students have been drilling relentlessly for the National Day parade tomorrow. Many are zealous but some can't muster the burning passion of their parents' generation. Quan Xiaoshu and Liu Qi salute.

At 6am, Ji Yulin's daughter looks out of the window. It's raining and she's delighted - perhaps her drills for the National Day parade will be canceled today?

But the notice never comes.

Ji, who is reluctant to reveal his daughter's name, takes her to the Beijing No. 2 Middle School as usual and carries on to the school's sub-campus, a 10-minute walk away, where he works as an instructor, to drill his own students.

They are training for the grand parade to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of New China tomorrow. And this year's anniversary is an occasion for a rare display of national strength and pride after 30 years of reform and opening-up.

Ji, 44, who has also taken part in the National Day parades for the nation's 35th and 50th anniversaries, will march with his students along Chang'an Avenue, the main east-west thoroughfare in Beijing, and pass the Tian'anmen Rostrum, from where Chairman Mao Zedong declared the founding of the People's Republic of China.

A special preparatory committee for the parade was set up in March and worked out a plan to include students from dozens of Beijing colleges, primary and middle schools in the celebration.

Yang Zhihui, deputy director-general of the Haidian branch preparatory committee, considered marching in the parade a once-in-a-life-time experience for the students who represent the future of the country.

But some of those who are too young to have experienced or appreciated previous National Day parades cannot quite understand or muster the zeal of their parents' generation.

Zhang Tianyi, an undergraduate student at Beijing Foreign Studies University, says he would love to watch the National Day parade, but a notice from the school requiring him to participate in the parade had messed up all his summer plans, which had included an internship, a tour to Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, and a visit to his hometown.

Di Tao, an official with the Beijing Municipal Commission of Education, clarifies that students will get full ticket refunds if their travel plans for summer vacation are disrupted by the drills.

"I don't think it's bad to see that students have different ideas about the parade. They should be allowed to choose whether or not to participate," says Yang Yiyin, director of the social psychology research office at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS).

Heavy rain has forced the school to shift the drills from the playground to classrooms.

"Today we'll practice standing, as we have to stand for a long time on the National Day and it's not easy without practice," Ji explains to the students.

They also practice waving flowers and flipping cards in synchronized movements.

In total, 900 students from Ji's school will participate in the parade. They will hold a bunch of plastic flowers at Tian'anmen Square tomorrow, to fit into a huge jigsaw board featuring the words "National Day" and "Long Live China" in Chinese.

As in previous parades, the country's leadership standing on the Tian'anmen Rostrum will inspect parade phalanxes composed of students, army and civilians from all walks of life.

Like many of his students, Ji's daughter seems untouched by the event, in sharp contrast to the excitement he felt for the previous two parades.

When the school first mobilized the students in February for the parade, Ji's daughter was reluctant. "The drills are demanding and may squeeze away my study time," she says.

Both her parents and teachers tried to motivate her. "It will be a rare, memorable and worthwhile experience, something you will feel only when you are there," Ji's wife tells her.

The girl finally agreed and the drills started in July. "We train from 7am to 10:30am each day, with no weekends, except a two-week break during summer vacation," Ji says, adding that running and leg lifting are the part of the daily routine to improve students' physical fitness.

Though Ji's daughter rarely complains, he can feel the zeal that he had felt in 1984 is clearly missing. Back then he was a 19-year-old high school graduate, and he and his classmates regarded it a great honor to be part of the National Day parade.

Teachers had to persuade students in poor health to withdraw from the parade, he recalls.

The parade in 1984 to mark the 35th anniversary of New China, the first in 24 years, was considered a significant display of national strength and progress. From 1949 to 1959, parades were held annually on October 1.

Since 1984, only the 50th anniversary was celebrated with a parade in 1999.

"We assembled at 5am and got to Nanchizi Street, a 15-minute walk from Tian'anmen Square, at 6am, where we waited until noon to walk to Chang'an Avenue," Ji recalls of his first parade.

Many of the balloons they had planned to release when they walked past Tian'anmen Square had slipped away during the wait, he says.

Ji and his classmates returned to school after midnight, in high spirits.

"There was no bus. Cars and even bicycles were still luxuries to ordinary families. Many students living far from school slept in the classroom that night. We were all very excited," he says.

Li Chunling, deputy director of the juveniles and social issues research office with CASS, attributes such passion to common values and an interest in politics.

"But this only-child generation, including Ji's daughter, has more diversified values due to the more open and informative environment. They also face fiercer competition in terms of school exams and jobs, making them more pragmatic," Li says.

Dong Zhenggang, a postgraduate student at Tsinghua University, sun-tanned from the drills, says students' views should be taken into consideration when National Day celebrations are planned, to encourage more enthusiasm and make the celebrations more lively and diverse.

"There are many more ways to show our love for this country," Dong notes.

Last year, when the Beijing Olympics torch relay was marred by Tibet separatists and other forces, there was an outburst of indignation from Chinese young people around the world who organized themselves to protect the torch. They also targeted lopsided Western media reports that they thought had humiliated China.

They took to the street in parades, besieged Western supermarkets, and established Websites to bash biased media reports, citing CNN.

Peng Liangfang from the Dongcheng District education commission in Beijing, says it's normal that students' perceptions of the parade differ from those of their parents' generation, as they are influenced by multiple cultures and tend to express their ideas openly.

But she insists that drills for the parade are a good test of their willpower and health if they can carry through with the arduous discipline. Many have been buried too much in online games or after-class tutoring.

"Give them some time, and they will find out the meaning some day," Peng says.

Maybe Ji Yulin's daughter will see it differently some day. But for now she already misses her piano, which she hasn't touched during this summer of drills.


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