image: Pedestrians and traffic in Tiananmen Square, Beijing.
Pedestrians and traffic in Tiananmen Square, Beijing.

Photograph © Macduff Everton

Face-Off in Tiananmen Square
By Paul Martin

Like an ant doggedly crossing some megamall parking lot, I trudge across the endless concrete expanse of Beijing's Tiananmen Square, a hundred-acre testament to—what...concrete, bigness? The cool, polluted October air hangs gray and heavy around me. I can literally taste the diesely stew of industrial emissions and automobile fumes, a metallic tang of roasted hydrocarbons. Is that a mirage my eyes pick out through the gloom? At the far north end of the square there appears to be some surreal, outsize image from an Andy Warhol silk screen. No, it's real all right—an enormous portrait of a benevolent Chairman Mao dominating a wall of the "Gate of Heavenly Peace," a 15th-century towered entrance to the Forbidden City. On a rostrum above Mao's portrait is where successive Communist leaders of China have stood to review waves of high-stepping troops and untold numbers of tanks and missile launchers, while up to a million onlookers cheer their nation's armed might and a day off work.

When I finally reach Mao's side of the square, I look around at all the Chinese tourists milling about, who for the most part seem to be engaged in looking around at all the other Chinese tourists. Suddenly I become aware of an elderly, sun-bronzed man staring intently at me. He is dressed in a vintage Mao suit and sports a Moe-the-Stooge bowl-cut. My nod and smile elicit no hint of friendliness in return. An old apparatchik, I wonder, or just someone with unbelievably retro tastes in clothes and hairstyles?

The man's stern gaze reminds me of the tensions that exist between China and the United States. As a visitor, though, I've put those government-level issues aside. But standing in Tiananmen Square, I can't ignore them completely, for right now I'm confronted with evidence that one of the most highly guarded secrets in the United States may be in the hands of the Chinese. No, not some arcane nuclear intelligence—something more far-reaching: Colonel Sanders's special blend of 11 herbs and spices.

Turning from the school-bus-size portrait of Mao, I spy, far away at the opposite end of the square near the Chairman's mausoleum, a rendering of Colonel Sanders that towers several stories high—emblazoned on the side of a building housing the largest KFC outlet in the world. It's no surprise to learn that American fried chicken is popular in China; it is a jolt, however, to discover that in Tiananmen Square—the epicenter of Chinese Communist symbolism—while Mao may be big, the Colonel is even bigger.

Asia has fascinated executive editor Paul Martin ever since his 1970-71 stint in Vietnam. He wrote about China's Three Gorges Dam in the March 2000 issue.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published, but we suggest you confirm all details before making travel plans.



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