China Congress: Watching Taxi Windows, Ping Pong Balls

Preparations are made for China's upcoming National Congress of CPC, outside the Foreign Ministry in Beijing on November 1, 2012. Photograph by Wang Zhao/AFP/Getty Images

How does China prepare for its biggest political event of the decade? That’s the meeting of the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party, opening Nov. 8 in Beijing, which will see a historic shift in top leadership. For starters, dramatically beef up security in Beijing, while beautifying the city with elaborate flower decorations and revolutionary banners. Other measures include shutting off foreign television in five-star hotel gyms, ripping out articles in overseas publications, and perhaps oddest of all, ordering taxis to disable their windows so passengers can’t open them.

Amping up security is not surprising. After all, more than 2,000 congress delegates from across China will attend the week-or-so-long political meeting. All of China’s present and future top leaders will be in Beijing, too, and will gather to meet in the Great Hall of the People, just off Tiananmen Square. Those include outgoing Party Secretary and Premier Hu
Jintao and his almost certain replacement, Xi Jinping, set to take over leadership of the 83 million-member Communist Party at the congress, as well as become president of China early next year. Premier Wen Jiabao and his likely successor, Li Keqiang, as well as the other present and future members of the elite Politburo Standing Committee (now with nine members, but that may become seven), will also be in attendance.

And with political scandals recently roiling the top leadership, including the stunning downfall of former Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai, once a candidate for the Standing Committee, Beijing has hardly felt stable. Indeed, rumors swept China’s blogosphere in March that a coup had been attempted by supporters of Bo. Bo is now awaiting trial for his complicity, along with his wife, in the murder of an Englishman, as well as corruption charges.

Since August, Beijing public security authorities have been cracking down on everything from gambling and prostitution to unlicensed taxis and stolen bicycles. All told, 33,000 cases have been dealt with, according to the China Daily on Oct. 21. Authorities too have been monitoring migrant workers more carefully, the Legal Daily reported Oct. 19. Extra police have been stationed at subway stations, with bomb-sniffing German Shepherd dogs, and also are posted along important Beijing byways, such as Chang’an Avenue, which is festooned with red and white banners with slogans proclaiming “Long Live the Great Chinese People” and “Long Live the Great Communist Party.” Meanwhile, vehicles carrying toxic chemicals have been banned from Beijing from Nov. 1 to 18.

 ”We must crack down on all kinds of serious criminal activities according to law and strengthen security measures for important infrastructure and the management of individuals from special groups,” said Standing Committee member and security czar Zhou Yongkang, on Oct. 19, reported the official Xinhua News Agency. “We must soberly realize that various factors exist which can lead to disharmony, insecurity and instability, bringing many risks and challenges for the security work of the Party congress.” (Zhou is believed to have been a supporter of Bo, and the March online rumors suggested he was in charge of the alleged coup attempt.)

But perhaps oddest of all has been the order from Beijing’s Traffic Management Bureau for all taxi drivers to secure their cab doors and disable the windows during the congress, so that passengers don’t attempt to throw anti-government leaflets out—possibly contained in ping pong balls or borne by balloons.

“’Seal the door’ by activating child safety locks on the doors. ‘Seal the windows’ by removing window cranks,” the traffic bureau advised taxi drivers. “During the 18th Party Congress period, taxicab drivers are to be on guard for passengers carrying any type of ball. Look for passengers who intend to spread messages by carrying balloons that bear slogans or
ping-pong balls bearing reactionary messages,” the notice continued, which was posted by a user called Lu Hua on Weibo, China’s microblogging service. Drivers too must “regularly inspect the inside and outside of their vehicles in order to ensure lawbreakers have not affixed reactionary materials or messages to the vehicle.”

“I’ve been driving 10 years and have never had a problem,” scoffed one driver when asked about the new rules. In any case, “anyone who is thinking of causing trouble is already being watched,” he said. Another said: “No one will want to open the windows then anyway—it’s too cold.” And he plans to avoid possible trouble by not driving inside the second ring road of Beijing during the congress, the heart of the city and where Tiananmen Square and the Zhongnanhai leadership residence compounds are located.

For their part, authorities insist that the clampdown won’t be too much of a problem for locals. Those agencies responsible for the congress’ security “should take residents’ feelings and opinions into consideration when they carry out their duties,” Beijing deputy party chief Ji Lin said in mid-October, the China Daily reported. And the police have been ordered to “build ‘harmonious relationships’ with the public and make sure that residents’ lives are not affected by the security measures for the congress,” said Meng Jianzhu, China’s minister of public security, on Oct. 16.

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