Happy Birthday, China

Today (October 1, 2005–I’m in a different time zone) is the 56h birthday of the People’s Republic of China.  But wait, you say, I thought China was an ancient civilazation with 5000 years of history!  Well, that’s true, but the nation that we know today was founded 49 years ago, when Chairman Mao stood atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace overlooking Tiananmen Square and declared that the the “Chinese people have stood up.”  It was the declaration of victory by the Communist Party over the Nationalist Party in their decades-old civil war for control of China.  I wandered around the old city for awhile this afternoon, and saw this man sitting under the national flag.  It’s quite likely that he was in the Square that day 56 years ago today.

Now it’s a holiday called National Day, or Guoqing Jie (lit. “congratulate nation festival), and it is celebrated with much pomp and patriotism.  In the past, it was always an occasion for a military parade down the Avenue of Eternal Peace, which runs through the heart of Beijing, past Tiananmen Square, and was a valuable tool of instilling pride in both the party and the nation.

In 1999, to celebrate the 50th anniversary, the government decreed (it  an do that here) that henceforth the entire country would get 7 days off instead of 3.  So, starting today, the country essentially closes down for the next 7 days.  We’re talking schools, factories, government offices, and many businesses.

What doesn’t close down, however is retail and travel industry.  In fact, one of the main purposes for this “Golden Week” as the government calls it is to get Chinese consumers to spend money.  It was instituted to stimulate the economy.  It’s a time for shopping and travelling, and a high percentage of China’s 1.3 billion people are on the roads, rails, and planes this week.

When it’s all over, the government newspapers (that’s all of them, by the way) will publish all the statistics on how much money was spent in various economic sectors.  Like so many other Chinese holidays (communist or not), it has morphed into a grand consumer spectacle.