The Chinese authorities are tightly muzzling critics as they prepare for the ruling Communist Party’s national congress and issuing a slew of security edicts, ranging from a ban on the sale of knives in the capital to admonitions about subversive ping pong balls.
Human rights lawyers, religious activists, and political dissidents are among those exiled from their homes in Beijing or forbidden to speak publicly until the 18th party congress, due to seal a once-in-a-decade leadership change, is over.
“I was forced to leave Beijing with my parents under police supervision on Oct. 25.. I am in Anhui Province,” wrote AIDS activist Hu Jia, normally under house arrest in the capital, on his blog today. He said he would not be allowed to return home until Nov. 20.
The congress will start on Nov. 8 and is expected to last about a week.
“I have just finished talking to the police,” said human rights lawyer Li Fangping, when contacted by a reporter. “It is really inconvenient for me to talk to you,” he added, before hanging up.
Liu Xiaoyuan, lawyer to prominent dissident artist Ai Weiwei, is also among those banned from Beijing for the next two weeks. Currently visiting his home province of Jiangxi on business, he said “the police came to talk to me … and told me not to return to Beijing until the end of the 18th party congress. I think it’s ridiculous.”
The Chinese security forces are always on high alert before major political events, such as significant anniversaries or important party meetings. However, the run-up to the party congress has been marked by signs of unusual nervousness.
Beijing taxi drivers, for example, have been warned that during the congress period they must avoid “areas of political importance,” which presumably means the Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square, where the event will be held.
They were also warned, in a memo issued a month ago, to “look for passengers who intend to spread messages by carrying balloons that bear slogans or ping pong balls bearing reactionary messages.”
To prevent such passengers from spreading their subversive ideas, drivers were instructed to “seal the windows” of their vehicles “by removing window cranks.”
The extreme measures drew caustic comment from citizens on Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like social media platform. “The logic is that they are so lacking in self-confidence they are scared so they have to take strict precautions,” wrote one blogger who called himself Yanpku.
Even more, establishment figures have complained. Yang Rui, a well- known television presenter, recounted on his blog how he was unable to buy a fruit knife in September because the sale of such potentially dangerous items had been forbidden until the end of the congress.
But perhaps the clearest and oddest sign of the authorities’ nervousness is the recent sharp spike in Weibo comments about the ancient Greek city-state of Sparta.
Not because amateur analysts are drawing any comparisons, but because the Chinese for Sparta – “si ba da” sounds very like the phrase commonly used to refer to the congress “shi ba da” (“the big 18.”) But “shi ba da” is a banned term on the blogosphere, erased by the censors wherever they find it. The upcoming congress will be choosing China’s leaders for the next 10 years, but the country’s citizens are not allowed to talk about it.