So let’s say you’ve cooked a juicy roast chicken and need a new carving knife. Or your son wants a remote-controlled toy airplane for his birthday. Or you simply wish to roll down the rear window in your Beijing taxicab. In the Chinese capital these days, such activities are proving complicated, if not impossible. The reason? The looming 18th Party Congress, the Communist Party’s grand powwow during which China’s leadership will undergo a once-a-decade handover.
Beginning on Nov. 8, China is expected to start welcoming a new crop of leaders helmed by Vice President Xi Jinping. Extravagant light displays around the capital announce cheerily “Welcome the 18th Party Congress!” At certain intersections, botanical exhibits with luxuriant plastic foliage spell out the people’s wishes for a safe and harmonious political gathering. The state media reports that 1.4 million volunteers have been mobilized to ensure security during the weeklong leadership conference.
All that seems relatively normal for a country that takes its Communist gatherings very seriously. But the flurry of other orders is where things have gotten really wacky. Take those remote-controlled toy aircraft: a female officer at the Shunyi district domestic-security bureau confirmed that at the present time all remote-controlled toy airplanes can only be sold if prospective buyers give their identification details to the store. (A clerk at a children’s store in another district, Wangjing, said her outlet had received no such notification, so the airplane ban appears to be by district.) What do Shunyi district security cadres imagine might happen? An enterprising troublemaker will mount explosives onto a tiny plane and steer it toward Zhongnanghai, the crimson-halled leadership compound in Beijing?
Or consider the small matter of taxi windows. Often Beijing air is so pollution-laden that you wouldn’t want to open your window anyway. Plus, the weather has turned chilly. But on Oct. 31, the air was crisp and clear; the Western Hills could be seen from central Beijing, a rarity. Still, a taxi driver surnamed Zhang said he was told by his superior at his cab company to keep the electronically controlled rear windows of his car shut at all times before and during the 18th Party Congress to “prevent passengers from handing out any leaflets.” The taxi driver said cabs with manual window openers were required to disable their handles. Pictures of such retrofitted cabs have popped up on Weibo, the Chinese microblog service that provides the most open airing of information in the country. An employee at the Yuyang United Taxi Co. said the policy was unveiled for “safety reasons during the 18th Party Congress.” Yet an official at the Transportation Administration of Beijing, which supposedly issued this directive, refused to either confirm or deny any such order. Again, what are the worries? That someone will begin passing out pro-democracy flyers from an open taxi window while China’s leaders meet secretly to decide their nation’s political fate?
At least Beijing’s new knife policy seems a little more understandable. An employee at Carrefour, the French grocery chain, acknowledged that her store in Chaoyang district was instructed not to sell knives a few days ago. She did not know when the ban would be lifted. A Walmart staffer said the local police station told the store that all “controlled knives” would not be allowed to be sold during this sensitive time. Customers who go to Walmart to buy cleavers, which apparently are not “controlled knives,” will be able to do so only if they leave their ID information with the store, so that the police can track the buyers, if necessary.
Parts of the Chinese capital are now no-go zones. This week, I was supposed to go to a rehearsal of a cultural event in north Beijing. But no one with a foreign passport was to be allowed so close to a nearby exhibition hall in the run-up to the 18th Party Congress. No one, of course, knew exactly what would be happening in this mysterious exhibition hall. People with Hong Kong identity cards weren’t being allowed into the neighborhood either. Or, in fact, anyone who didn’t have a Beijing identity card.
The one piece of good news? Citizen reporters on Weibo say the price of persimmons, which are ripening across the capital in brilliant bursts of vermillion, have plummeted because out-of-town buyers cannot drive their vans into the city to load up on the autumn fruit. Local farmers have had no choice but to slash prices; four persimmons can now be purchased for as little as 1 yuan, or 15¢. But will a surfeit of cheap persimmons be enough to keep Beijing citizens sated, even as other usual freedoms, big and small, are curtailed?
— With reporting by Chengcheng Jiang and Gu Yongqiang / Beijing