China clamps down before crucial party congress

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Originally published in USA Today on November 5, 2012

China’s politics remain an elite, forbidden zone, protected by crackdowns that range from the authoritarian to the seemingly absurd.

12:22AM EST November 5. 2012 – BEIJING — China’s national pole-dancing team, five women and two men, jet to Switzerland this week for the sport’s world championship. Back home, people fret about house prices, watch TV dating shows and love online shopping. They shoot “Gangnam Style” music video covers, too.

In countless social and economic ways, urban residents of the planet’s most populous nation, and second largest economy, enjoy modern lifestyles that increasingly resemble the Western world. Then there’s politics, which remain an elite, forbidden zone, protected by crackdowns that range from the authoritarian to the seemingly absurd.

As the U.S. readies polling stations nationwide for the presidential election Tuesday, the People’s Republic of China only needs to prep one venue for the imminent selection of its next leader. At Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, 2,270 delegates from the ruling Communist Party will gather Thursday for a largely ceremonial congress that begins a week-long countdown to announcing China’s worst-kept secret: Vice President Xi Jinping succeeding party leader Hu Jintao in this once-a-decade leadership transition.

Authorities mopped up the Chinese capital Sunday after snow and freezing rain. In recent weeks, they also have moved to clean up all potential security threats, real or imagined. The measures, some familiar, others new, include:

  • Banishing known dissidents to other cities.
  • Removing window crank handles from taxicabs, to stop passengers dropping leaflets or ping-pong balls bearing “reactionary” content.
  • Restricting the purchase of remote-control model aircraft, including toy helicopters.
  • Barring tour boats in public parks, lakes and rivers.
  • Removing knives and pencil sharpeners from some shops.

In Ta Wenxian’s cab, the windows are electronically operated — and he’s under company orders to keep them shut this month, he said, and to stop passengers from exiting near Tiananmen Square “It’s for the security of the 18th Party Congress,” said Ta. “If someone dares to die, I can’t stop them, but I’m confident the police can control everything.”

They are leaving little to chance. Beijing’s party boss Guo Jinlong last month ordered public security officials to “join the war” to guarantee safety at the congress, while police in central Hubei province vowed to “fight a tough war,” despite the absence of any organized opposition or evidence of serious attempts to disrupt previous party sessions.

The party’s chief troubles this year have been internal, namely the scandal involving Bo Xilai. The ambitious former leader of Chongqing city was expelled from the party Sunday, said state news agency Xinhua, and faces trial for multiple abuses of power.

Tiananmen Square, adjoining the congress venue, is the focus of a nationwide security network. In the name of “maintaining stability,” that effort targets groups such as petitioners who might launch protests in Beijing. While unrest has grown more common in China, incidents remain rare in the tightly patrolled capital.

On Friday, under stricter than usual conditions, all visitors were searched and their IDs checked before reaching the square. A group of four Tibetan monks drew special attention, and were questioned again on the square. More than 60 self-imolations by Tibetans in the past year, protesting Chinese rule, represent just one of the many challenges facing Xi and his new generation of leaders.

SWAT teams stand near Tiananmen and at Beijing’s railway stations, while guards monitor major bridges to prevent anyone hanging banners. In Yanyue Hutong, one of the old city’s time-worn alleys, Wang Changsong and other retired neighbors proudly bear the red armbands that mark them among Beijing’s 800,000 security volunteers.

“I have no opinion on who the new leaders will be,” said Wang. “As long as they do good things for us common people, we’ll accept them.”

Wang, 66, said the $80 monthly government payment for low-income groups is “not enough to live on” as prices rise. In addition to watching for thieves, he also intervenes in domestic disputes to push the “social harmony” the party prizes. Corruption, however, is another matter. “We all hate corruption, but as ordinary people have no control over it,” he said.

A wall poster nearby showed sunlight above the Great Wall and the slogan “Follow the Communist Party forever, step to a brilliant new future together.” Nationwide, local propaganda officials have organized displays of party loyalty such as schoolchildren lined up to form giant symbols, and labor-camp prisoners singing songs of gratitude.

To avoid discordant notes amid the good news, at least 130 people, including human rights lawyers and activists, have been detained or had restrictions placed upon them since September, rights group Amnesty International said Friday. “As a new generation of leaders prepares to take power in China, we are witnessing the same old tactics of repression against those that are courageous enough to peacefully challenge the regime on human rights,” said the group’s Roseann Rife.

Beijing’s citizens are accustomed to increased security at what appears an ever-lengthening list of “sensitive” times and anniversaries, but some still question the logic of certain restrictions. The knife sales ban is “ridiculous,” said Zhang Hongmei as she was having her kitchen knife sharpened by a street vendor in eastern Beijing. “If a dangerous person intends to hurt others, anything could be his weapon,” said Zhang, 60. “He could break a bowl to make several knives.”

The congress has forced numerous events to be canceled or postponed, including the Beijing Marathon. At Huiling, a non-profit organization in central Beijing, development director Peter Gao said the group’s community services for people with learning disabilities had been little affected. He said he hopes for a sign from the congress that the party will grant more space to civil society. At present, Huiling, like other non-profits, must register as a company and pay taxes, or find a government sponsor.

While China’s newspapers and broadcasters must closely follow the party line, Internet users enjoy more leeway, sometimes just temporarily, to express divergent views. Many have used the name Sparta, the Greek city–state, to avoid the online block on the similar-sounding (in Mandarin) “18th Party Congress.” Some bloggers mocked the multiple bans.

“The people presiding over the People’s Daily and China Central Television fear leaflets,” wrote Yao Bo, a social commentator, on the hugely popular Sina Weibo. “Those controlling the military, armed police, police, urban law enforcement and elderly patrol teams fear kitchen knives. Those with a fleet of armored cars fear taxis passing the political center. The people in charge of stealth fighters fear remote-control aircraft and balloons. Bro, am I living in ‘Alice in Wonderland’?” he asked.

China’s party-appointed judges show little humor to those who engage in politics online, and especially any attempts to organize others. Internet cafe manager Cao Haibo, 27, who founded an online democracy discussion group, was jailed last week for eight years for “subversion,” said the Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a rights group based in Hong Kong.

Contributing: Sunny Yang

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