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So Close, Yet So Far

Watching China's National Day parade from a tantalizing distance

Kennedy By Bruce Kennedy
CNN Interactive

BEIJING (CNN) -- One of the least-discussed aspects of broadcast journalism is that the people you see on television -- especially at some far-off live event -- usually make up only a small fraction of the crew actually working there.

This was certainly true at China's National Day Parade in Beijing's Tiananmen Square on Friday.

Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, says more than 700 non-Chinese reporters representing more than 200 news organizations are in town to cover the celebrations.

Just a fraction of those journalists were able to experience the event first-hand, however, given the VIP-only nature of the parade and the limited seating.


National Day Parade celebrations

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Live broadcasting from Beijing

Even the camera crews that were given a place in front of the Gate of Heavenly Peace found their allotted space shrinking. At one point we were told we could only have 75 square centimeters to call our own at Tiananmen. That is about two and a-half square feet, or roughly the space a normal-sized person stands in.

What this meant for me was that I had to watch on television an event that was taking place within walking distance from my hotel. And forget about crashing the party. We were told security would be drum-tight.

So during a brief meeting the night before, our designated Tiananmen cameraman agrees to take my still camera with him to capture the flavor of the event from his perspective.

Joking around at breakfast

National Day begins with talk over breakfast about the nuclear emergency in Japan. Whenever you get a group of journalists together, twisted newsroom humor almost invariably emerges. In this case, some of my colleagues began to joke about how CNN would cover the end of the world, improvising bits of on-camera banter such as:

Editing tape
Behind the scenes: Editing tape at CNN makeshift headquarters in Beijing  

"We'll have more on those reports, still unconfirmed, of a Rain Of Frogs in North Korea -- but first let's go to Christiane Amanpour, who is covering the Plague Of Locusts.

Thanks, Bernie (swat). I don't know if you can (swat) hear me over the constant buzzing here, and some of the insects are eating through (swat) the rubber covering of our electrical cables, so this report may be cut short, but what I can tell you is .....zzzzzzzzzzzz."

After breakfast we walk over to China Central Television, down the block from our hotel. CCTV is the broadcast feed point for Chinese and non-Chinese journalists. Its garden is also the setting for CNN's live shots, the ones not originating from Tiananmen.

CNN's setup at CCTV consists of two rooms and one corridor. The rooms are used for editing videotape, monitoring events on television, writing reports, holding meetings, taking phone calls and engaging in small talk. Clocks are temporarily affixed to the walls with gaffer's tape.

The corridor is our control room, consisting of a table piled high with equipment for receiving and sending televised images. The table is between the frames of two sliding doors. I mention this because everyone tripped on the floor bar of one door at least twice a day.

Parade preparations: CNN reporter Mike Chinoy confers with a colleague before the National Day parade  

Strange speculations

The parade begins at 10 a.m. with a cannon salute. We watch on our monitors the honor guard moving down the center of the square, goose-stepping toward Tiananmen itself. One monitor shows reporter Mike Chinoy preparing for his live shot.

Soon Chinese President Jiang Zemin appears on Tiananmen's balcony with the rest of the nation's leaders. Jiang appears in a Mao suit. Premier Zhu Rongji is dressed in a western-style business suit.

More than a dozen people cluster around the control room monitors, watching the action as they communicate with headquarters in Atlanta.

September 20, 1999

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  • September 21, 1999

  • A visit to the Ming Tombs
  • September 22, 1999

  • Tiananmen Square preps up for the big day
  • September 23, 1999

  • Is China's health care system heading for a crisis?
  • September 24, 1999

  • A virtual tour of China's Aviation Museum
  • A contemplation of the so-called Americanization of China
  • September 27, 1999

  • Surfing in Beijing
  • September 28, 1999

  • Railway journeys: On the Red-Eye to Shanghai
  • September 29, 1999

  • Sunday in the Park with Lu Xun
  • September 30, 1999

  • A visit to the Jade Buddha Temple
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  • Watching China's celebrations...from the sidelines
  • October 4, 1999

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  • The banter goes something like this: Did the government seed the local cloud cover, starting last night's downpour but ensuring clear weather today? Is it true the troops in the ceremonies are wearing incontinence underwear to prevent embarrassments during the hours-long event?

    The military parade begins. Tanks, armored personnel carriers, missiles (on launchers) and artillery pieces roll across our screens. Army, navy and air force units pass, their footsteps echoing in our speakers.

    One of the several people gathered around the monitors, a Beijing native, explains the proper way to march in the Chinese military style, as is taught in school. The leg must be raised a uniform 20 centimeters from the ground on each step, with the foot pointed. The arms swing back straight, then come up at right angles to the body, hands in fists.

    Yells are exchanged between the control area and the rooms. Is Atlanta receiving our signal? How about the translation?

    The aerial part of the parade is the only part we are able to witness for ourselves. The low-flying procession of bombers, fighters and refueling planes -- in formations of fours and fives and sixes -- thunders over our position. The noise of the jets shakes glass and sets off car alarms in the CCTV parking lot.

    Amazing images

    Back on the monitors, the military part of the parade is ending. Huge floats decorated with tractors and cars move by. There are other amazing images as well.

    Balloons galore: The October 1 celebration includes releasing thousands of balloons  

    A division of newlyweds, all married on National Day, marches past. Tall women with huge head-dresses, resembling a Las Vegas version of a Tang Dynasty painting, wave from a wheeled platform.

    A group representing China's minorities, dressed in ethnic costumes, surrounds a float containing a large portrait of Jiang Zemin.

    There are also participants in wheelchairs, on roller skates, and on unicycles -- and dragon dancers, lion dancers, fan dancers and ring dancers. Thousands of balloons and birds are released.

    One of our news crew walks in with some interesting news. The police roadblocks are not as strict as had been advertised. Several crew members were able to watch for themselves as some of the parade passed through a residential area west of Tiananmen.

    Another producer says she saw crowds surround a military vehicle after it had finished its parade duties. The people, she says, wanted to shake hands with vehicle's crew.

    Things begin to wind down after the parade ends. Some crew members are being diverted to Japan to cover the nuclear accident story. Two others prepare to depart for India to report on the national elections.

    The rest of us eat and prepare for the evening. There are more events planned, and they too will be covered by CNN.

    Bruce Kennedy was a Chinese history major at Bowdoin College in Maine. He worked for Visnews, the international television news agency, for five years before joining CNN in 1988. After a stint at CNN International, he began work at CNN Interactive. Kennedy has extensive experience in East Asian affairs, having studied and worked in the region.

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