China enlists everyone from cops to cabbies to enforce orderly transition

China's ruling Communist Party opens a congress Thursday to usher in a new group of leaders. Much about the meeting will be a reminder that China remains an authoritarian state.

David Gray/Reuters
A paramilitary policeman stands guard in front of a screen displaying propaganda slogans on Beijing's Tiananmen Square Nov. 6. Security has been tightened around the square and the adjoining Great Hall of the People as China opens its 18th Communist Party Congress.

As the United States ends its political season, China’s is beginning, and Beijing would like to keep things in order. That means red banner slogans strung along roadsides, flurries of propaganda-as-news and, of course, a police crackdown.

In the coming week, officials here will trumpet the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party as an event confirming that, as one state news item recently put it, “democracy with Chinese characteristics is improving.”

Much about the meeting will be a reminder, however, that China remains an authoritarian state that often requires a certain amount of willing suspension of disbelief when it comes to public politics.

The congress of 2,270 delegates is set to exercise “intraparty democracy” in electing a new central committee for the party. After the congress, which starts Thursday and expected to last a week, the new central committee will convene a meeting at which the politburo and its standing committee are chosen. The seven or nine standing committee members – the new total isn’t yet known – form the nucleus of ruling power in China.

A small level of competition in voting is expected for full members of the central committee, now just above 200 seats, and, though the prospect seems slim, Reuters cited unnamed sources Tuesday as saying that the same could be true for the 25-person politburo as well. But the all-powerful standing committee almost definitely has been determined through factional jockeying behind closed doors.

And, as was the case for outgoing President and party General Secretary Hu Jintao, there’s no doubt that his replacement, Xi Jinping, will be elected the president of China next March by a second, rubber-stamping body, the National People’s Congress. 

While the beginning of the 18th Party Congress is fixed, no specific end date has been published. In the preceding months, foreign reporters who were trying to divine when the meetings would start had kept an eye out for signs like canceled public events or particularly large floral arrangements being erected in the capital.

The assembly and its once-a-decade transition in power will be in the Great Hall of the People, an immense structure that recalls the architecture of the now-defunct Soviet Union.

China’s authoritarianism falls short of the Soviet Union’s, but it brooks very little dissent.

A story Monday by the Xinhua news wire reported that a senior security official had recently been “inspecting a security ‘moat’ project created in areas encircling Beijing for the congress’ smooth holding.” There was apparently no water involved, just a lot of police.

The story quoted Zhou Yongkang, a standing committee member who oversees domestic security, as urging authorities in Beijing and surrounding regions to form a “solid defense ... thus creating a safe, orderly, auspicious, and peaceful environment for the successful holding of the 18th National Congress.”

Amnesty International released a statement last week that gave an idea of what that might mean: More than 100 activists have been rounded up so far.

“The police have placed dozens of activists under house arrest, forcibly removed individuals from Beijing and have closed down the offices of community groups in attempts to suppress peaceful dissent,” the group said. “Scores of activists are believed to be held in ‘black jails’ across the country.... Hotels, hostels, basements of buildings and farm centers have all been reportedly used as black jails.”

With the congress fast approaching, Beijing taxi drivers have been told to take off the window handles from their backseats. They also were instructed to be on the lookout for passengers bearing balloons or pingpong balls that could contain subversive political messages.

During a recent cab ride past the Great Hall of the People, a passenger asked the driver what would prevent someone from hurling such forbidden objects from the front seat, where there were power windows and no handles to remove.

The reply was quick: “I am here to watch.”

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