A Nation Celebrates a Stormy Half-Century

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Let history record that the 50th anniversary of the People's Republic of China began with a minor miracle. A steady rain had been soaking Beijing, and the forecasts were not encouraging. But when the big day arrived, the streets of the capital were dry and the clouds had lifted enough for the promised formations of fighters, bombers and helicopters to roar out of the east and streak above Tiananmen Square. There, a crowd of 500,000 citizens, carefully chosen for their love of the motherland, looked on as thousands of children waving red and gold fans spelled out the characters for national day. Beijing's 10 million other residents had to watch from behind distant barricades or on television. Fearing potential disruptions, police had swept the city of vagrants, migrants, dissidents and the mentally ill, taped shut mailboxes and padlocked manhole covers.
President Jiang Zemin, dapper in a charcoal gray Mao suit, reviewed rows of troops and hardware from an open-topped Red Flag limousine. He had much of China's military might to review. Aside from the flyby, there were tanks, armored personnel carriers, missile launchers and the new Dongfang 31 missile--capable of hitting Alaska, had that state attempted to disrupt the festivities.

Late in the day, the sky cleared. Beijingers had the rare pleasure of seeing the magnificent hills outside their normally smoggy city. That was partly because a number of polluting factories had been closed for the week. But it may also have been history smiling on a country that has attempted much, suffered greatly and long yearned for its moment in the sun.