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'No' tops the agenda ahead of China's 18th party congress

Beijing has imposed a slew of prohibitions in the run-up to the Communist Party leadership change, on everything from which foods can be sold to what can be shown on TV.

October 28, 2012|By Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times
  • A Chinese police officer checks the identity of men resting in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Authorities have heightened security ahead of next month's Communist Party congress.
A Chinese police officer checks the identity of men resting in Beijing's… (Ng Han Guan, Associated…)

BEIJING — In honor of the upcoming 18th congress of the Chinese Communist Party, here are just a few of the things you cannot do in Beijing.

Watch foreign television while you exercise in a health club. Attend an outdoor concert. Do your homework online. Buy a knife in the supermarket. Buy lunch from a food cart. Run a marathon.

Complain.

Mao Tse-tung once said revolution is not a dinner party, but the party congress scheduled to begin Nov. 8 — during which a new Chinese leadership will be anointed — isn't looking like much fun, either.

Since last month, in the name of security, Chinese authorities have turned to various baffling regulations that are snuffing much of the life out of Beijing, and police have increased their presence to keep the capital's streets free of problems. As a result, many residents are finding the country's political event of the decade to be nothing more than a colossal inconvenience.

Countless public events — cultural, sporting and business — have been canceled or postponed with no explanation and scant notice.

The Beijing Marathon, a world-class event normally run in October, was postponed to an undetermined date. Attendees at a legal conference scheduled for Oct. 10 arrived to find the doors taped shut and a notice saying the building had been closed by the fire department.

It has become difficult to find street vendors selling jianbing, a Beijing-style fried pancake that used to be as ubiquitous as hot dogs in New York, or someone grilling chuan, the Chinese version of shish kebab.

At the city's five-star hotels, guests pounding away on the running machines and cross trainers can't do so to the patter of CNN or a number of other programs: The television sets are all fixed to state-run channels.

Why?

"You can't see foreign programs anymore because we are not allowed to play them. I don't know why, but the relevant parties said it was not allowed," said an employee in the gym at the Grand Hyatt.

The congress is the whopper political event in China, sort of like the U.S. Republican and Democratic conventions and election night all rolled into one. Though the event takes place every five years, this year's gathering is highly important because both President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao are to be replaced, along with other members of the top leadership.

Thousands of party cadres will be in Beijing for the occasion, making heightened security understandable to some extent. Still, at times it can feel like overkill.

Though the weeklong congress will be held at the Great Hall of the People, the security cordon extends far beyond Tiananmen Square.

Across town in Sanlitun, a restaurateur was visited recently by 20 municipal inspectors whose leader told him, "Avoid trouble and close your doors until it's over."

Train stations throughout the country have barred anyone who is not a passenger from platforms. A family in Shenzhen, more than 1,000 miles from Beijing, complained about not being allowed to help a 90-year-old relative with his luggage.

The websites of China's international schools, which students use for online homework assignments, have seen unexplained disruptions.

The inconveniences are large and small: Yang Rui, a nationalist television host sometimes dubbed the Rush Limbaugh of China, complained on his blog about a recent experience in a supermarket.

"I looked everywhere for a fruit knife, but I failed. So I asked the clerk. He said, 'All knives are off the shelf before the 18th party congress.'"

The precautions, if intended to avoid scandal, feel somewhat like locking the barn door after the horse has escaped. The country has already seen a fair amount of unwanted attention during the last year or more.

In recent months, for example, the wife of a then-Politburo member, Bo Xilai, was convicted of murder, and a top security official, Wang Lijun, sought asylum in a U.S. consulate. Hu Jintao's top aide had to step down after his son crashed his Ferrari, with two naked women as his passengers. The presumptive next president, Xi Jinping, disappeared for 17 days in a vanishing act that remains unexplained.

The congress' inconveniences were drawn out this year because of secrecy over the date. By the time it was announced in September, lower-level government officials who had been left in the dark had already decided it was wisest for them to clear the calendar for much of autumn.

"We still have an underground party which is scared to reveal its real moves to the people, even the dates of its meetings," dissident artist Ai Weiwei said in an interview this month.

Li Dan, who runs the Dongjen Center for Human Rights Education, said authorities were using the congress to maintain their grip on the people.

"It has become a habit over the years. At the lower levels, officials are afraid they will be punished if anything goes wrong at a crucial moment," Li said. "There is always, every year, some big reason they claim they cannot be relaxed."

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