AT the grand anniversary celebrations last week, attendees weren't props but excited participants.

BEIJING : Attending China's national Day celebrations over the years has been a bit like listening to different tales of a song, with the composer honing the themes and jettisoning raw bits until the piece sounds just right.

That's how I felt at last Tuesday's celebrations on Tiananmen Square, held to observe the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.

I've attended two other ceremonies like this before - for the 35th anniversary in 1984 and the 50th in 1999 - and I know the basic drill:

There would be a big military parade followed by floats celebrating the government's accomplishments.

But this show felt bigger and brassier than either of those, as if the composer had decided to use every instrument in the orchestra and cast subtlety aside. It was slick and sleek, but also overpowering and at times bombastic.

When I received my invitation, government officials told me that I was lucky to attend because it was such a great honor. I nodded politely but only really understood what they meant when I arrived at Tiananmen Square on Tuesday at 6 a.m.

We media types were just a few hundred in a sea of loyal members of the Chinese Communist Party 'C.C.P.] and for many of them it must have felt like one of the biggest events of their lives.

It would be easy to write these people off as extras, And 20 years ago, the last time I was at such an event, the people in attendance were mainly highly-trained performers who held aloft placards that spelled out different messages, North Korea style.

But this Tuesday's crowd was different. It was made up of university professors, scientists, administrators, bureaucrats, and people who made some sort of contribution to the state.

They weren't props but excited participants who expected to remember this day.

I noticed that right away when I walked past a raised platform covered with artificial grass that surrounded a big-television screen. People were crouching down next to the platform and neatly arranging their letter of invitation, parade-picture ID and program, almost all in the same fashion, like sacraments on a church altar.

Then they would snap a picture, aiming their cameras so that China's national symbol, the Gate of Heavenly Peace, appeared in the background.

These were photos designed to be boasted about on social media : ''Guess where I was today?'' ''Yes, at Tiananmen Square''

''Yes at the ceremony,'' And here is proof.

The World Students Society thanks author Ian Johnson.


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