"Warmly Welcoming Macau Regression" reads the carelessly translated candy wrapper. The Chinese characters for "return," hui gui, are also used to describe the statistical concept of regression. As the final seconds of Portuguese rule over the tiny South China enclave melted away Sunday night, the scene in Beijing's Tiananmen Square made the unintentional pun seem especially apt.
A long stream of banner-toting official participants solemnly filed into the square even as the boisterous unofficial spectators, braving the bitterly cold North China winter to be a part of history, were steadily driven back by soldiers and policemen. Tiananmen Square, symbolic center of the Chinese nation and site of countless rallies planned and unplanned throughout the history of the People's Republic of China, was off limits to the very people who could lend the ceremony an air of authenticity.
"This wouldn't happen in your country," noted a disappointed father.
To be fair, the soldiers were far from rough, revealing through their awkward smiles the fact that they were not entirely comfortable with their assignment. The mischievous crowd tried every method to avoid the gauntlet, to no avail. Every back street and pedestrian underpass was covered by security personnel.
One soldier bore a striking resemblance to Lei Feng, the legendary PLA (People's Liberation Army) figure who embodies selfless love for common people through self-sacrifice. "Lei Feng would have let us into the square," quipped another onlooker within earshot of the soldier in question.
The reason for the tight security was no mystery. Tiananmen Square has recently been the site of unprecedented activity by supporters of the banned Buddhist cult Falun Gong. Falun Gong supporters had threatened to make their presence felt at official ceremonies in Macau, and Beijing security forces were taking no chances. "The government wants to avoid chaos," observed a cab driver.
While most Beijingers wisely viewed the festivities within the warm confines of their homes, the hundreds who ventured out into the 15 degrees Fahrenheit weather to witness the midnight hand-over were proof that many people had no need for an official invitation to feel compelled to express their patriotism. While China's President Jiang Zemin lead an official delegation far to the south in Macau, China's major cities all held special activities to commemorate the historic hand-over, which marked the end of over four hundred years of European colonial presence in China. Next to the Macanese ceremony, Beijing's was arguably the most elaborate.
"Watching the event on TV just isn't the same," remarked a thirty-something software salesman whose breath reekd of sorghum liquor. His sentiments were echoed by a group of art students from the coastal city of Yantai, who joked that perhaps the crowd could use Santa's flying reindeer to jump the police line.
Indeed, the Christmas holiday, increasingly popular in this officially atheist country, has been creatively tied in to the Macau festivities. Commemorative Santa hats emblazoned with the new Macau Special Administrative Region flag are available in Beijing stores.
Tiananmen Square, the world's largest, had room to spare. The thirty thousand official participants and spectators could easily have made way for tens of thousands of their compatriots, who could be kept at a respectful but still intimate distance from the canned festivities. The fact that the central government sees fit to restrain even the most genuine expressions of patriotism symbolizes the wide gap between Party and people. The Beijing Government, so keen to portray itself as the symbol of Chinese nationalism, did itself no service on Sunday night.