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A different kind of student gathering in Tiananmen Square

Columns of soldiers marched into Tiananmen Square at 10:00 p.m. on the eve of China's National Day barking orders to the thousands of students occupying the area to clear out.

The students scattered in confusion and apprehension.

But, it wasn't a crackdown.

NBC News/John Bailey

People line up overnight in Tiananmen Square hoping to get a good spot for the daybreak flag raising on China's National Day.   

The patriotic students were only confused about where to line up while crews cleaned the area. They were lining up to get back in to see Tiananmen's sunrise flag-raising ceremony on their country's birthday, Oct. 1. This year's event attracted an estimated 200,000 spectators, according to the "China Daily."

The apprehension? They are all anxious to get front-row seats.

All-nighter

My night in Tiananmen actually began much earlier than 10:00 p.m. I decided to bring my video camera and spend the night in the square with a group of students from the People's University in Beijing. The plan was to camp out for prime seats to the flag ceremony and document it along the way.

After vacating the square, we lined up in a massive queue. Soon it started to rain. Nonetheless, the enthusiastic crowd packed in shoulder to shoulder between barriers enforced by guards and police.

"It's okay," one student joked about the rain. "It will be like the Long March." (He was of course referring to the well-known and hugely propagandized 7,767 miles retreat known as the Long March in which the Red Army escaped destruction during the Chinese Civil War.)

Finally they opened up an entrance, causing lots of pushing and maneuvering. After order was restored, the drenched crowd re-entered the square in orderly columns two by two. It was about 1:30 a.m.

The October Holiday


National Day is like China's version the Fourth of July and kicks off the beginning of the October Holiday, a weeklong national vacation – which accounts for the big crowds at the flag-raising ceremony.

In honor of National Day, Beijing erected an impressive display in Tiananmen Square including hedges cut to resemble the Great Wall, the Summer Palace, and the Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi'an. There was also a nine-foot model of the Olympic torch and a model of the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. In the middle was a large fountain with an arrangement made up of over 400,000 flowers.

Many Chinese use the vacation to travel. And like everything else in China, travel happens on a large scale. Xinhua, China's official news agency, estimated that 300,000 tourists would come to Beijing for the holiday this year

As a result, many Beijing residents opted to get out of the way. Wang Jingyi, a teacher in Beijing, planned to leave town to avoid the crush of visitors. "We're going to Hong Kong," she said. "I'm really excited because I've never been before."

Chen Xiaogen / Xinhua via AP
In this photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency, crowds of tourists throng to Tiananmen Square in Beijing Monday, Oct. 1, 2007.

Cold and wet

Huddled under umbrellas in Tiananmen Square, however, what occupied the crowd's mind was the rain.

One member of my group finally surrendered.

"I can't stand it any longer," he said. "If it doesn't let up in ten minutes, I'm going to McDonald's." It was 3:30 a.m.

By 3:40 a.m. we trudged out of the square in search of shelter. As we left, I couldn't help but be impressed by the patriotism and dedication of the thousands of Chinese – mostly students – who, despite the rain, stayed behind for a chance to celebrate their national holiday up close in Tiananmen Square.

We didn't make it to McDonald's. Like many other parts of Beijing, it was under construction. We settled for a nearby Chinese restaurant. Over beef noodles and dumplings, I got a chance to hear the students' thoughts on everything from Sino-American relations to China's prospects versus the U.S. in the upcoming Olympics.

One of them offered his insight of China's economic, diplomatic, and cultural rise.

"I think the rest of the world should understand that China isn't at all like the Soviet Union used to be," he said. "We want China's rise to be peaceful."

As for his countrymen's prospects in the Olympics?

"I don't know if we can win more gold medals than America. If we did, we would all be very proud."

Back to the square

At 5:00 a.m. we rallied and headed back out. The square was full, so we made it across the street to watch from just in front of Beijing's Forbidden City. It was still raining.

The crowd was enormous despite the rain. Packed in behind thousands of onlookers – and their umbrellas – we were unfortunately not in the front-row seats my companions had hoped for.

But at 6:10 a.m., as the sun rose and the soldiers hoisted the Chinese flag above Tiananmen, my friends smiled and sang the Chinese national anthem in anticipation of their upcoming holiday.

Wet and without any video, but appreciative of the experience, I headed home for some sleep and a break of my own.