Andy Wong / AP
Chinese President Xi Jinping, center, opens his umbrella as Premier Li Keqiang, right, and Chinese Communist Party top leaders stand in the rain after bowing before the Monument to the People's Heroes during a ceremony marking National Day at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on Tuesday.
BEIJING -- There may have been red faces at Beijing's famed Weather Modification Office on Tuesday afternoon.
Thunder and flashes of lightning before dawn suggested they were in action to clear the air for China's National Day.
China leads the world in weather modification. The Beijing office is part of a national system that employs more than 1,500 experts and 40,00 part-time workers, overseeing a fleet of aircraft, anti-aircraft guns and rocket launchers to shell the clouds with chemicals. They have boasted of more than 500,000 weather modifications since 2002.
The Beijing Olympics was perhaps one of their high-points, largely keeping the sky clear, as was the big celebration of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic four years ago.
Ian Williams / NBC News
Pleased it's over, students leave Tiananmen Square after washed-out National Day celebrations in Beijing.
And by early afternoon they appeared to have done a great job. The sky was blue and the air was rid of the thick smog that had engulfed the city for several days.
Only their timing was lousy.
It came too late to prevent the National Day celebrations in Tiananmen Square being a wash-out, as Communist Party leaders braved torrential rain and sloshed through puddles, each holding aloft an identical gray umbrella, as they made their way past a guard of honor to present soggy flower baskets to Monument of the People's Heroes in the center of the square.
Hundreds of students were wrapped in while plastic rain coats, as they bravely went through their dance routines. Goose-stepping soldiers tried to pretend the sun was shining, while groups of police huddled under umbrellas.
Apart from the ceremony, presided over by Communist Party leader and President Xi Jinping, the square was almost completely deserted.
The celebrations were carried live on four television channels.
Ian Williams / NBC News
Journalists huddled under umbrellas watch China's National Day celebrations. The rest of Tiananmen Square was almost deserted.
A Chinese friend sent a message from holiday in India. What happened, she asked, "there's always blue skies on National Day."
The consensus was that the Weather Modification Office misfired this time. The press podium was awash with cynical journalists speculating as to whose head would roll for failing to prevent President Xi being rained on. Indeed, the rain seemed to intensify as the leaders appeared.
The manipulators themselves have said nothing, neither confirming or denying they were working.
And in a way it might just help the president, who has targeted official privilege and ostentation. Xi carried his own umbrellas at the ceremony. One colleague, a very experienced China hand, was incredulous: "I don't remember Mao or Deng or Jiang ever holding their own," he messaged, referring to past leaders.
And being rained upon might also fit the image that Xi is trying to portray, as down to earth, a man of the people, the sort of regular guy who does get rained on from time to time.
Perhaps the weather modifiers won't lose their jobs after all.
This story was originally published on Tue Oct 1, 2013 6:53 AM EDT