Chinese authorities took down the green steel barriers and unveiled a much touted "new" Tiananmen Square today after an eight-month renovation that sealed off one of China's most important symbols -- and tourist attractions -- from public view.
In what the government billed as a complete renovation of the massive square before Communist China's 50th birthday party on Oct. 1, workers replaced the old concrete paving bricks with white granite slabs, fixed up the light fixtures and sound system, and added two grass strips along the edges.
The "world famous, majestic, glorious" square is now ready "to demonstrate the pride of a rising China in the next century," the state-run media enthused. Many of those who braved the blazing summer sun to see for themselves said they approved of the changes. One retired worker, crouching in a rare finger of shade from a lamppost, said the stone surface was a nice improvement.
"There's not really any new feeling, but it's still good. It's so big," said Sun Yonglin, 29, a nurse and amateur violinist who took advantage of a day off to take a look.
But those who hoped that the government would begin to make Tiananmen less a stark symbol of national power and more a people friendly public space like the elegantly designed People's Square in Shanghai, found little to smile about. Tiananmen still has no benches, shade trees, or any of the other soft touches that make the center of Shanghai a comfortable place to relax.
Photographer Huang Minxiong, who has been taking pictures of the square and its visitors since 1972, said that taking a cue from Beijing's often stunning parks would have improved the square's environment. But he conceded that such suggestions were not likely to be heeded any time soon, because "Beijing is the political capital."
Indeed, the government has sought, in ways big and small, to constantly remind visitors that Tiananmen Square is the symbol of Communist authority. Goose-stepping guards raise and lower China's five-star red flag there in a daily ritual that is watched by hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of onlookers. Mao Zedong's portrait peers out over the square. As of today, even kite flying requires a permit.
After the 1989 military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters who had been gathering in the square, authorities tightened restrictions. A weathered sign next to the Monument to the People's Heroes in the square remains unchanged despite the face lift.
"Presenting wreaths, baskets of flowers, garlands and small flowers to the Monument must be approved. . . . Registration formalities should be made five days ahead," it reads. "Any violators should be punished."
Renovations were to be completed by the end of May, but work continued until this week, nearly a month after this year's sensitive 10th anniversary of the crackdown.
The most unmistakable sign of the government's political intentions for Tiananmen lies in a glass sarcophagus at its center. The massive Mao mausoleum, inspired by Vladimir Lenin's tomb in Moscow, was constructed in 1976. The move angered traditionalists, who saw it as a disruption of the architectural lines of the square.
Now, however, some are calling for changes that would dwarf the tinkering revealed today.
"Shutting this thing down is the right thing to do," said a professor at Beijing University.
"In China's history, no emperors were buried in the center of the city. . . . It's an invention of Stalin," he said. "On the surface, it shows respect for the dead. But in fact, it doesn't respect him. Dead people want peace."