I was discussing with a few friends recently how Jingshan Park in Beijing is becoming an increasingly interesting place to visit these days, especially with some people actually openly holding political discussions there. It made me wonder if the city was developing into something like London’s Hyde Park and its animated Speakers’ Corner.
About 10 years ago, when I was still a student at university, I worked as a part-time tour guide in Beijing. I used to take foreign visitors to the park to watch the locals doing their morning exercises, so I’m quite familiar with it. It’s located in the heart of Beijing, north of the Forbidden City.
At some point it became a popular place for middle-aged and elderly people to gather, and it’s possible that the term ‘red songs’ was actually coined here. ‘Red songs’ hail from the 1950s through the 1970s—the Mao Zedong era. They may seem a little outdated now, but they’re still popular among many ordinary Chinese. In fact, there’s been a bit of a revival recently, with Hong Kong singer Karen Mok covering the song ‘Da Qi Shou Gu Chang Qi Ge’ (Beating the drum and singing songs) and Shanghainese singer Hu Yanbin covering ‘Beijing de Jin Shan Shang’ (On Beijing’s Golden Mountain).
Anyway, back to Jingshan Park. I was there last weekend and noticed some interesting things. First, I was surprised by the number of people. Back in my student days there were usually no more than about 100 people there on a typical day. This time, though, I’d guess that there were about five times that number. There were quite a lot of young people out as well, taking photos and even joining in singing some of the ‘red songs’. There were also some people dressed in 1960s military attire enacting some of the events from back then as they sang songs from the period. Needless to say, this attracted some curious foreigners.
The second thing I noticed was the obvious increase in the number of policemen. I don’t know if it was anything to do with the recent Jasmine rally calls, but I did hear from one university professor that a debate on the topic of revolutions—an event that the university had spent months preparing for—was cancelled by the authorities. No reason was given.
Another thing I noticed was the way groups of elderly people had gathered to chat about domestic or foreign affairs after they’d been singing—discussing everything from high property prices to Japan’s nuclear crisis. Some of these chats attracted a number of passersby, who stopped to listen to the discussions. I didn’t notice the police trying to interfere in these gatherings.
The popularity of the ‘red songs’ reflects recent thinking in China. Some see them as just a hobby, while others view it as some kind of emotional release. Regardless, many Chinese have been unhappy about the widening income gap between the rich and poor here, and many more believe that corruption in China is the result of the opening up of the country. Such people, sometimes dubbed the country’s New Left, think of the Mao era as one of egalitarianism.
So, is Jingshan Park China’s answer to Hyde Park? Everyone will have their own opinion about this. But regardless, I’d much rather see this kind of freedom of expression than what’s going on in the shopping district of Wangfujing.