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Amid Heavy Security, China Readies for Leadership Handover

  • VOA News

Policemen and members of the Special Weapons and Tactics practice dispersing crowds ahead of next week's 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, in Zhengzhou, Henan province, October 30, 2012.

Policemen and members of the Special Weapons and Tactics practice dispersing crowds ahead of next week's 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, in Zhengzhou, Henan province, October 30, 2012.

Senior Chinese Communist leaders have gathered amid heavy security for a closed-door meeting in Beijing, where they will put the finishing touches on a once-a-decade leadership handover that officially begins next week.

China's state-run Xinhua news agency said the final gathering of the Communist Party's 17th Central Committee opened Thursday. The short memo said that changes to the party's constitution and other proposals are being discussed.

The meeting, expected to last for about a week, will likely result in the formal expulsion of disgraced politician and former Politburo member Bo Xilai, who is expected to soon stand trial for corruption and other charges.

It also represents one of the last chances for Communist leaders to haggle over party leadership positions to be unveiled at the 18th Party Congress beginning next Thursday.

Bo's case, along with several other high-profile corruption scandals, have placed Communist leaders on edge ahead of the already sensitive transition, with security being ramped up across the capital. Xinhua says 1.4 million people have volunteered to help police "maintain stability" during the meeting.

Many public events have been cancelled or postponed in Beijing, and some areas have been declared off-limits. Some stores throughout the city have been told not to sell knives, scissors or other potentially dangerous items.

Chen Ziping owns a toy shop in Beijing and says even small, remote-controlled helicopters have been banned.

"This kind of craft cannot fly long distance and it can hardly carry anything," he said. "They just told me to stop selling and I have to follow the order."

Police are carrying out random security checks with increasing frequency.

Rachel Lu is editor of Tea Leaf Nation, a website that monitors Chinese social media. In an interview with VOA, she said that some taxicab drivers have even been instructed to modify their vehicles to ensure that passengers do not use windows to distribute leaflets with what the state calls "adverse information."

"If you're taking a taxi, you'll probably notice that in the back seat where you can roll down the window, the knob has been taken off by order of the police. And the argument from the police apparently is that you can't roll down the window and distribute leaflets," Lu said. "And we're seeing discussed on social media that even if you're sitting in the front seat, the taxi driver is supposed to stop you from rolling down the window to prevent you from distributing a leaflet."

Lu said the massive security lockdown, which Tea Leaf Nation described as "war-like" has prompted complaints on China's microblog Weibo, with many wondering if officials are overreacting. But much of the reaction has been humorous, she said.

"People are sort of making fun of these measures, and basically asking what are [the authorities] afraid of. And no one knows the answer to that question: why is it so extreme? But I think people are kind of just taking it as it is, kind of making fun of it," said Lu.

But Renne Xia, the international director of a group called Chinese Human Rights Defenders, warned that the crackdown is extremely serious and more pervasive than anything the country has seen before other big political events.

"People being stopped from going outside their homes, traveling to Beijing or Shanghai or the provincial capitals, said Xia. "Lots and lots of petitioners being intercepted."

Two factors appear to be driving the crackdown, said Xia. First, the political corruption scandal surrounding former Politburo member Bo Xilai has exposed the ugly underside of China's internal power struggle. The other factor, she said, is the use of the Internet, making it quicker and easier for anyone to spread opposing views.

"Certainly, no government today, no matter how organized, intimidating and starting this web crackdown can actually control every expression. There are so many ways online to do this sort of opinion airing."

Xia said its impossible to say whether the Chinese security crackdown will ultimately backfire, but added it shows how scared Communist party officials have become.

As for the security measures themselves, the Communist Party-controlled Global Times acknowledged Thursday that "some netizens have cast doubts over such keen preparations." But the paper also insisted that any disruptions to daily life are worth the cost of creating a "favorable environment for a smooth Congress."

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