From Toys to TV News, Jittery Beijing Clamps Down

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BEIJING -- A word of advice to anyone hoping to celebrate the gathering of Communist Party apparatchiks who are about to descend on the capital next week to anoint a new generation of Chinese leaders: Leave the balloons at home.

As this sprawling city of 20 million people steels itself for the 18th Party Congress, all sorts of potentially buoyant objects -- balloons, homing pigeons, Ping-Pong balls and remote-control toy airplanes -- are finding their way onto lists of suspicious items that could potentially carry protest messages and mar the meticulously choreographed political spectacle.

And this is just a tiny portion of the government's rules and restrictions, circulated on the Internet but never officially acknowledged, that seem likely to make daily life especially challenging during the weeklong congress, which one provincial police department likened to a "state of war."

In recent days, kitchen knives have been removed from store shelves, Internet access has mysteriously slowed to the speed of molasses, and international news channels like CNN and the BBC have disappeared from television sets in upscale health clubs.

At the Bookworm, a popular English-language bookstore, the section previously devoted to Chinese politics and history has been stuffed with Stephen King thrillers, child-rearing guides and Victoria Beckham's "That Extra Half an Inch."

"We're just reorganizing," one employee said with a helpless shrug. "They'll be back after the party congress."

In recent days, the list of interruptions and inconveniences has grown longer than a post-congress communiqué. Running marathons, academic conferences, pet adoption fairs, film productions and jazz concerts have all been canceled or postponed. Not just in Beijing but across the country, business deals at state-run enterprises have been frozen for weeks, employees say, while one frustrated Web designer said no new sites could go up until after party elders publicly presented the new slate of top leaders at the end of the congress.

The musician Gao Xiaosong, posting on the Chinese version of Twitter, said songs with the words "die" or "down" had been temporarily banned from television. "I just witnessed a singer who sang 'Die for Love' have his performance killed," Mr. Gao wrote. "Colleagues should take this as a lesson."

All facets of Chinese society have been affected. The China Securities Regulatory Commission warned stock traders to keep market volatility to a minimum and not "buck Beijing" ahead of the political event.

And some of the predominantly male delegates arriving from around China may be particularly disappointed by just how far officials have gone to eliminate distractions from the endless speeches and dinners taking place behind closed doors. At least half the capital's prostitutes have already been arrested or driven out of town, according to Li Dan, whose nonprofit group provides outreach to sex workers.

For Chinese dissidents, the congress has already proved itself to be a slap in the face. Hundreds, if not thousands, of activists and government critics across the country have been placed under house arrest or forced to take "vacations" far from the capital, often in the company of police minders, according to human rights organizations.

Tsering Woeser, a Tibetan blogger, said national security agents forced her to vacate her Beijing apartment this month. "I guess they consider people like us inharmonious," Ms. Woeser said, speaking by phone from Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, where she grew up. "They just want us invisible during their big important meeting."

Pu Zhiqiang, a prominent lawyer in Beijing, said the party's paranoia served only to fuel public disillusionment. "If the government actually represented the common people, they wouldn't need to be so strict," Mr. Pu said. "The party is so cynical they think the people must always be distracted and manipulated in order to maintain stability."

So far the restrictions on Beijing taxis have produced the most complaints. Drivers have been ordered to disable their rear-window controls lest passengers toss antigovernment messages upwind from the Great Hall of the People, the imposing Mao-era confection on Tiananmen Square that is the site of the congress.

Cabdrivers have been promised rewards for turning in passengers "who intend to spread messages by carrying balloons that bear slogans or Ping-Pong balls bearing messages." As part of the "zero spread" rules, drivers have been reminded to check rear seats for unseemly political messages that might have been left by passengers.

"It's terribly inconvenient," complained one driver, Li Weixu, who said he was most concerned about whether the government would reimburse him for the cost of replacing the hand-crank window handles that he was required to yank off.

Preparations for the party congress, many months in the making, have preoccupied anxious government bureaucrats across this vast nation. "Safeguarding social harmony and stability is a very important precondition for the opening of the 18th Party Congress and is the priority task and political responsibility of every level of government," Zhou Yongkang, the nation's security chief, said during a meeting with top officials in July, according to People's Daily.

In one remote, largely Tibetan county in Qinghai Province, in China's northwest, officials vowed harsh punishment for market vendors caught selling photographs of the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader, or for anyone "spreading obscene, pornographic and vulgar messages," according to a notice circulated by the county government in Rebkong, or Tongren in Chinese. At the other end of the country, in coastal Shandong Province, 26,000 officials were sent to villages and small towns to make sure the rural "grass roots" remained pacific ahead of the party congress, according to the state-run news agency Xinhua.

Even the country's most irrepressible government critic, the artist Ai Weiwei, has been largely reined in. Mr. Ai said his police minders suggested he could publicly talk or write about almost anything -- except the coming party congress.

"To be honest, it's O.K. because it's just an internal meeting for those people," he said, emphasizing "those" with faint derision. "It has nothing to do with me. Or with anyone else, really."

Amy Qin contributed research.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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