Until last week, Alice Li's summer plans were simple: work part-time at a convenience store, study for graduate exams and go to the amusement park with friends.
The upcoming celebration of 60 years of communist rule in China has changed all that. For many students in Beijing, the summer holidays will instead center around government-mandated drills for an elaborate parade to mark the Oct. 1 event.
Li, a third-year student at the Capital Institute of Physical Education, will have to quit her job and put everything else on hold to attend practice. For now, the sessions before class last only about half an hour - but will stretch to three when school lets out at the end of July.
"I'm really furious!" said 21-year-old Li, furrowing her brow as she sipped kiwi juice at a cafe after a compulsory jog that began at 6:30 a.m. "We have completely lost our freedom!"
For Li and other indignant students across the capital, it's not just about sacrificing their time. It is also a reminder that despite China's dizzying economic and social progress, the Communist Party still often rules by command and ordinary citizens are expected to fall in line without question.
Many do so - but grudgingly and without the fervor of previous decades as government fiat clashes with middle-class aspirations.
"Being under the sun for three months, how will this help my studies?" said a poem posted online by a student from the prestigious Peking University. "Who is going to pay for the travel ticket I have already bought? ... I'm angry!"
Students interviewed for this story refused to use their Chinese names because they feared retribution from school officials. All said they were deeply unhappy about giving up internships, trips or the simple joy of a few weeks of idle relaxation.
Their resentments are a turnaround from last summer when students, Li included, were falling over themselves to be chosen as volunteers for the Beijing Olympics. Their enthusiasm proved infectious, cheering athletes and visitors during the games and helping to make them a success.
"There is nothing wrong with doing something for the love of your country, but I cannot stand being forced by my school," Jimmy Zheng, a student at a high school in west Beijing, said in an online instant message exchange.
Zheng said he did not dare resist when teachers insisted he and his classmates sign a "volunteer" sheet committing him to at least two-and-a-half hours practice a day for two months. His plan to go to Shanghai for the July 22 solar eclipse is gone, and he's looking at less time to work on his blog and play video games.
"Who would be happy if they had to give up a holiday where lots of fun activities have already been arranged?" he said. "We are all disgusted by the decision the country has made."
Derek Huang, a 20-year-old student at Beijing Normal University, said in a text message that officials and schools "should consider students' interests all the time and be cautious when dealing with this kind of issue."
He is even more pointed in one blog entry: "In the end, everything is about politics."
How many schools and students will take part in this year's event is unclear. Recruitment methods and practice times vary, depending on the school, according to students interviewed. A Ministry of Education spokesman said the details - from preparations to the actual event - are "a state secret." Like many Chinese bureaucrats, he refused to give his name. The Beijing city government did not respond to telephoned and faxed requests for information.
The state-run Beijing Evening News reported last month that at
least 100,000 students from Beijing's primary, middle and high schools will be involved. Students at elite Tsinghua University said participation is voluntary and is mostly being left to younger students and those eager to become party members. An invitation letter sent by school officials promised incentives like free sports gear and 60th anniversary souvenirs.
Like most official party events, the National Day festivities are expected to be tightly choreographed spectacles, with this one centering on a huge parade. The events are a way for the leadership to show off to the world and its people the country's might and prosperity.
In past years, students have been brought in to pack Tiananmen Square and the sides of the parade route, waving flowers and performing synchronized drills with flash-cards. Thousands of soldiers and a cache of heavy weaponry have been part of the procession along Beijing's central Avenue of Eternal Peace.
This year, Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou, who directed the opening and closing ceremonies for the Beijing Olympics, was hired to oversee the evening fireworks display. An editorial in the English-language China Daily state newspaper promised that the celebrations would be the "most spectacular in our history."
This hold little excitement for Li, the sports university student.
Compulsory practices mean that she will have to give up her four-hour part-time job at 7-Eleven that pays about $100 a month - enough to cover daily expenses so she needn't impose on the modest incomes of her parents, a department store cashier and a road-sweeper.
The training times are not fixed, so she cannot sign up for preparatory classes to help her pass graduate studies exams. One of her friends, who refused to be interviewed, had to give up going home to another province for the summer.
"There's absolutely no need for this. We can do this 10 days before the event," Li said.
Her school, she said, will only exempt students who have a serious illness and can produce a medical certificate or an X-ray to prove they are unfit.
"This is crazy," said Li. "The holidays are completely for the students. Why are we being restricted now?"
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