China's 19th Party Congress brings crackdown on critics, nightclubs and Airbnb


A nightclub in Dongguan, China’s infamous “sin city”.
A nightclub in Dongguan, China’s infamous “sin city”.PHOTO: ST FILE

BEIJING (NYTIMES) - The police and military swarm the streets at all hours, checking documents and questioning passers-by. Political critics have been jailed, placed under surveillance or sent to the countryside. Popular gathering spots like nightclubs have been shuttered and home-sharing services like Airbnb banned.

As China's political elites converge on Beijing in the past week for a seminal Communist Party meeting, President Xi Jinping is sending a stern message to China and the world: I am in charge, and nothing can stand in my way.

Xi is leaving nothing to chance.

Beijing has been placed on lockdown. Security officials - wielding assault rifles, batons and shields - have held drills across the country. Online censorship has intensified, and tools to circumvent China's "great firewall" disrupted.

Taken together, the efforts show a president who is deeply concerned by what he perceives as threats to China's security and eager to showcase his vision of an all-powerful Communist Party.

Xi, who rose to power in 2012, often speaks about the need to protect the party against domestic and foreign enemies, and he has worked to strengthen the military and national security forces. He has presided over a withering campaign against critics: imprisoning scores of human rights lawyers, activists and journalists who have pushed for greater freedoms.

The security measures for the party congress show that Xi will not hesitate to use a "heavy hand on those who dare to exist with differing views," said Frances Eve, a researcher for Chinese Human Rights Defenders, an advocacy group.

"Left unchecked," Eve said, "Xi's vision of totalitarian control would see civil society eliminated and freedom of opinion and expression strangled."

More than a dozen activists have been detained in recent weeks, according to rights groups. Dozens more have been harassed, placed under surveillance or forced to travel outside the capital.

One detained activist posted a video ridiculing Xi in crude terms.

Another wrote songs paying homage to political dissidents like Liu Xiaobo, the jailed Nobel laureate who died in July.

Wen Donghai, a human rights lawyer in Changsha, a southern Chinese city, said he was called in for questioning by police recently because he belonged to a social media group that circulated videos critical of the Communist Party.

"They control people without giving any reason," Wen said.

"All these talks are illegal."

As part of the crackdown, authorities have increased pressure on hundreds of aggrieved citizens who have made the journey to Beijing in recent days to file complaints about local corruption, pollution, unpaid wages and other issues.

Liu Minjie, 55, tried to file a complaint in September against the Supreme People's Court in Beijing for decreasing the sentence of the man accused of murdering his son. Instead, Liu was detained and accused of "seriously disrupting social order."

Liu remains in custody and may face up to five years in jail, according to his daughter, Liu Xia.

"He just wants to seek justice for my brother," she said.

"Now we are all worried."

Beijing has become a model of state power as more than 2,000 delegates have descended on the city for the party congress, which began Wednesday and will conclude next week. Security officials stand guard along busy intersections and armies of volunteer guards patrol neighbourhoods.

Streets are adorned with feel-good posters praising Xi and the Communist Party. One declares that life is so good in China that "every day feels like a holiday."

Protests are virtually non-existent.

"We have no rights and no place to go," said Li Ming, an activist who came to Beijing from Hunan province to protest the poor quality of tap water, which he said had made him ill. "The police are everywhere."

The government, wary of large crowds, has closed several nightclubs, restaurants and meeting halls. Drones have been banned in parts of the city, and sales of knives and scissors have been curtailed. To reduce the flow of outsiders to the capital, Airbnb and similar home-sharing services have been temporarily suspended.

The intense security has prompted grumbles among some Beijing residents. Subway lines have become excruciatingly long in some areas. Photographs have circulated online showing hundreds of people crowding outside stations.

"Skateboarding, boating or riding a horse might be faster," quipped one user on Weibo, a popular microblogging site.

Many residents have been startled by the tactics. While the capital often employs strict security measures, the efforts underway for the party congress are especially severe.

Wang He was surprised earlier this month when she got a message saying she would be barred from renting her apartment on Airbnb.

"I thought I did something wrong," she said.

"I was so scared." Still, Wang said she planned to resume using the site once the congress ends.

"They won't block it forever, right?"