Security Freak-Out: Beijing on Total Lockdown as Power Handoff Nears

Who do the Chinese think is about to disrupt its leadership transition?

RTR38HSQ-615.jpgParamilitary police stand guard before Beijing's Tiananmen Gate. (Jason Lee/Reuters)

It's a state of lockdown so extreme that it feels like war. With China's change in leadership at the 18th National Party Congress just nine days away, "stability and security" has become the number-one issue for all levels of Chinese government. Although "stability preservation" ("维稳") is always a high priority in China, it has now become the singular priority, affecting the lives of countless Chinese officials and citizens.

In mid-October, the Beijing police department held a kick-off meeting for a one-month security project. At the meeting, more than eight hundred police representatives swore their determination to keep Beijing secure during the Congress. Guo Jinlong, the Beijing party secretary, said during the meeting that the security officers should forcefully prohibit any politically sensitive event, social violence, terrorist act or mass demonstration that might affect the progress of the Congress.

On Sina Weibo, China's Twitter, a journalist who attended the meeting with the handle @红缨老枪 recounted in detail: "Some new phrases appeared at the meeting this morning: Act preemptively, fight actively; check everyone, follow every clue to its utmost; no carelessness is allowed, no room for error; neither big nor small incidents are allowed to take place."

This kind of discourse, more appropriate to a foreign war than to internal security affairs, has led many to question whether the government regards its own citizens as enemies. Ma Yong (@旁观者马勇), a professor of history at Chinese Social Science Academy, writes that the government is simply overacting. "These kind of meetings have been held seventeen times over more than ninety years, under a variety of circumstances. Is there any need for such a degree of sensitivity? Why not treat it as normal?"

This warlike attitude has spread all over the country. On October 15, the national railway police system said it would treat the undertaking of Congress-related security as if it were actual combat. Special attention would be paid to the provinces surrounding Beijing. On October 20, Hubei province announced that the police would enter "a state of war" to ensure security until the end of the Convention. All police vacations falling in this time period would be cancelled. In the past month, declarations of similar commitments from other government organs have been prevalent.

This kind of discourse, more appropriate to a foreign war than to internal security affairs, has led many to question whether the government regards its own citizens as enemies.

In this high-pressure atmosphere, political dissidents and civil rights activists are the most likely to be targeted. Under the special security measures, many of them enjoy limited personal freedom or live under daily supervision by security officers. Those who live outside Beijing are denied entry to the city, while those living in Beijing are forced to travel out. Teng Biao (@滕_彪), a human right lawyer, gives this summary of the "18th Congress Syndrome": "When I was [recently] in Shenyang, I couldn't get access to Skype via the Internet provided by the hotel. Many web pages which had not been blocked before were blocked then. It makes me think of some friends of mine who are under house arrest, are forced to travel or work elsewhere, are driven out of their homes, are denied access to the Internet, are silenced, or are denied entry to Beijing."

Ordinary people are also experiencing the effects. @王瑛006, who lives in the Chongwen district of Beijing, tells her story: "Yesterday three people from the neighborhood committee entered my household to do a registration for safety concerns before the Congress. They asked my name, whether I was the household leader, where I was registered, my cell phone number, and how many people lived with me, whether they were male or female. In order to save time and energy, they also asked information about my father's, daughter's and son's households. I asked them whether it is really so unsafe before the Congress. They said they would even take turns to stand guard some days later."

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Yueran Zhang is a Chinese writer based in Durham, North Carolina. He contributes regularly to Tea Leaf Nation.

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