BEIJING — As if by clockwork, last week the Internet in Beijing slowed to a crawl. Google and gmail would not open. My V.P.N., an essential tool to circumvent the Great Firewall, stopped working.
The reason, of course, was the Communist Party Congress and China’s once-in-a-decade leadership transition. Over the past week 2,000 delegates from across the country have descended on Beijing, and the roughly 20 million people who call the capital home have just had to put up with it — and with some absurd security measures.
Some shops in Beijing were made to remove sharp items from their shelves — even pencil sharpeners. Pigeon-enthusiasts were asked to keep their birds locked up in their coops. The manager of one upmarket restaurant near Tiananmen Square told me with a shrug that officials had ordered him to lock the restaurant’s terrace for fear that activists might drape subversive banners over the balcony.
The party has reason to feel nervous. Public anger is growing over the ever-widening wealth gap, pollution and rampant corruption. A spate of political scandals, most notoriously the fall of Bo Xilai, has exposed the elitism, profiteering and criminality of some high-ranking officials. And in the midst of all this, the Communist Party is attempting to orchestrate the second peaceful transfer of power in its history.
Paranoia is part and parcel of governance here. This was first made clear to me on Oct. 1, 2009, a few weeks after I arrived in Beijing. I obtained a press pass to attend the Chinese Communist Party’s 60th anniversary celebration held in and around Tiananmen Square.
A wave of caution dampened the mood. In the days leading up to the anniversary, residents in central Beijing were told to keep their windows shut. My office block, though nowhere near Tiananmen, was closed down for days, with workers told to stay away. Making my way to the evening festivities, I had to pass through nine security checkpoints in the cordoned off alleyways surrounding Tiananmen. Armed guards were making sure neighborhood residents stayed home and watched their People’s Party on television.
In Tiananmen Square itself thousands of choreographed dancers performed in unison. It was a spectacular show in a strangely muted atmosphere. The surrounding streets were empty, with just a handful of journalists in a pen and officials in stiff suits in a V.I.P. seating area. Everything had been orchestrated for TV. It was a street party without pedestrians.
When the Congress ends on Wednesday and China’s new leadership is finally announced, I’ll breathe a sigh of relief. And I won’t be the only one. One local government worker told me about the stress of these past weeks. She has been helping implement yi bang yi (“one helps one”), a government initiative that contacts the relatives and colleagues of people who have shown interest in the banned spiritual movement Falun Gong and asks them to keep an eye on possible subverters. She is exhausted and worried sick that she’ll be punished if anything goes wrong.
For all the talk of China taking over the world, until it allows its residents, its businesses and its capital city to function as normal during big events it will remain just that: talk.
Photograph: Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore