BEIJING -- This night was supposed to be different. Seven years ago, I was a student here when the city was awarded the 2008 Olympics. An amateur Olympics nut then, I watched the entire IOC meeting on Chinese national television that July 13, 2001.
When Beijing was announced as the '08 host city and fireworks started popping outside my dorm window, I biked to Tiananmen Square and discovered an all-night celebration, a sea of people, masses of ordinary citizens celebrating China's finest hour.
I sang and cheered with them for hours and finally made my way home around sunrise. In college, I never pulled an all-nighter (not for lack of needing to, just a lack of ability to function well past the hour of midnight). But on July 14, I watched the sky lighten before I went to bed. China's Olympic hour had begun.
So you'd think the perfect place for me to see the new China, the China that came with such promise on that night, would be Tiananmen once again. But like its complicated history, Tiananmen on Friday night would deliver mixed messages, not wild celebrations.
To put it simply, nobody was there. That is, after the streets were swept of all of the people who gathered hours before the opening ceremony was to begin, waving Chinese flags and sporting "Go China!" stickers and wearing "China must win!" headbands. The night started out promisingly, with tons of people milling on the edges of the square.
But security forces kept people out of the center, and then, hour by hour, at least in the southern part of the square near Qianmen, where I hunkered down with two Sports Illustrated photographers, police pushed the people away, and not always nicely. This was not the all-nighter I was dreaming of, not by a long shot.
I thought about it afterwards and realized that in 2001, when I biked to the square, the story was the people, the pure joy, the cheers of crowds screaming "Long live China! Long live the Olympics!" On Friday, the story was the police keeping everyone away. Of all of my memories of '01, the one thing I have absolutely no memory of is any kind of police presence at Tiananmen Square. That night, we were all allowed to just party. It was one of the most memorable nights of my life.
If the world were less complicated, if these Games were not fraught with the possibility of terrorism as all modern Olympics are, if China were simpler, if it was not so tempting for those with grievances to air them during the Olympic fortnight, this night could have been different for Tiananmen, the world's largest square and a natural gathering place for the Chinese on so many occasions. Even though my Western friends remember Tiananmen almost exclusively for the one horrific incident that took place there in our lifetimes, for me it has always been a symbol of the grandeur of China in all its complicated facets.
I understand, to a point, why allowing people into the square tonight would have been difficult. Security has been super-tight around the square as the Olympics approached; earlier this week I had to pass my bag through a metal detector in an underground passageway in order to be allowed to enter Tiananmen. That's a first. And the fireworks display that lit up the sky above Tiananmen and other major sites around the city at the close of the opening ceremony would have been a safety concern.
But there were fireworks in '01, too, and that didn't keep the powers that be from allowing ordinary Chinese to mill about the square, singing and celebrating until dawn. I wish they had figured out a way to make that happen this time. (To the Olympic organizers' credit, there were many other sites around the city with big-screen televisions broadcasting the opening.)
In the end, I did what I would have thought unthinkable when imagining this night in my dreams: I left the square early.
I wandered down side streets, found a television inside a muggy little restaurant tuned to the ceremony, and watched part of the athletes' parade with a gaggle of locals. That, too, was a memory of '01, when I used such opportunities to practice my nascent Mandarin.
Eventually I moved on, running into yet another shadow of my past life here: A family had moved their television set out in front of their house so that all the neighbors could gather around the set to watch the ceremony. In '01, as I wheeled my bike out the gate of Beijing Normal University towards Tiananmen, I passed a group of people on the street, doing the very same thing. Only then, they were watching the coverage of the IOC vote in Moscow awarding the Olympics to Beijing.
The '08 version of my Tiananmen story doesn't end at dawn on a bike, but inside the Main Press Center before midnight. I made it back there in enough time to watch a big-screen Chinese-language broadcast of the tail end of the Opening Ceremony, from the point where Liu Qi said "Welcome to Beijing" in English, to the close of the torch relay and Li Ning's triumphant, ethereal floating journey to the Olympic flame.
The cheers from the 200 or so Chinese volunteers gathered around the television captured the energy I had so been hoping to find at Tiananmen. When the fireworks began, we all raced outside to watch them being launched from the sky north of National Stadium and the media center. They were spectacular, gorgeous, Olympic. I'm told the fireworks in Tiananmen were pretty good too, for anyone who hung around its deserted edges until midnight to watch them.
I miss the Tiananmen Square of '01, when the world felt simpler. Luckily the party thrown inside National Stadium tonight was almost enough to make up for it.