China has ordered businesses to close and carried out mass detentions of petitioners and rights activists in a nationwide security operation during its "New Silk Road" forum in Beijing.
As nearly 30 heads of state gathered in Beijing for President Xi Jinping's "Belt and Road" global infrastructure initiative, restaurants were ordered to close by local police, while power to polluting enterprises in neighboring Hebei province was cut.
Several homegrown Chinese fast-food chains said they would shut down "in order to support the Belt and Road Forum" Sunday through Tuesday.
Meanwhile, local power companies announced a shutdown of power supplies to a number of polluting enterprises from May 12 in Langfang city in neighboring Hebei province.
"Local enterprises are required to halt production pending environmental rectification," a directive issued by a local government in Wen'an county said.
Meanwhile, groups of "interceptors" were dispatched by local governments to detain and escort home anyone traveling to Beijing to pursue a complaint against the government.
"During the Belt and Road forum, there has been a huge crackdown on petitioners, with illegal kidnappings and detentions by local governments," a Shandong petitioner surnamed Jiang told RFA.
"They're spending tens, hundreds of billions to support foreign countries, but back in China, ordinary people can't even get reliable health care coverage or pensions," Jiang said.
More than a dozen Sichuan petitioners including Li Zhaoxiu, Yan Tafeng, and Zhou Wenming were detained by interceptors en route to the forum venue at Huairou on Sunday and taken to the out-of-town unofficial detention center at Jiujingzhuang on the outskirts of Beijing, they told RFA.
"When I was in Beijing yesterday, there were police checkpoints at all of the public transportation stops, particularly those heading out to Yanqi Lake and Huairou, with police checking people's ID," Li told RFA. "When they find petitioners, they take them to Jiujingzhuang."
"Security is also very tight around Tiananmen Square and Qianmen [in downtown Beijing]," she said. "There are police vehicles everywhere, regular police and riot police."
Li said she was escorted home by interceptors along with the rest of her group of petitioners from Sichuan's provincial capital, Chengdu.
'Nothing but slaves'
And police in Tianjin surrounded the home of a 91-year-old woman in a bid to prevent her traveling to Beijing during the forum, prompting a standoff with her grown children.
"You are all slaves. You are nothing but slaves," a woman yells at the visibly embarrassed officials. "One day your slave-masters are going to kill you all, and your descendants will be petitioning for human rights, democracy, and a constitutional government, just like us."
"Petitioning isn't a crime. Why do you treat us like this, protecting your corrupt regime? You have sold out!" she shouts.
Meanwhile, President Xi hit out at growing protectionism in a keynote address at the forum launching his new Silk Road plan, calling for greater openness and cooperation.
"We need to seek results through greater openness and cooperation, avoid fragmentation, refrain from setting inhibitive thresholds for cooperation or pursuing exclusive arrangements, and reject protectionism," he told delegates, who included Russian president Vladimir Putin and Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Comparing nations to "swans and geese" that can fly through storms as a team, Xi pledged to pour an extra U.S.$124 billion into the China-bankrolled project, includes plans for ports, railways, roads, and industrial parks, on top of some U.S.$890 billion earmarked by the China Development Bank.
However, a number of European Union countries—France, Germany, Estonia, Greece, Portugal, and Britain—refused to sign one of the forum's trade communiques, citing concerns over the transparency of public procurement and social and environmental standards, Reuters reported.
And India boycotted the summit over plans to create the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor linking northwestern China to the Arabian Sea via disputed territory in Kashmir.
Bid for legitimacy
Xia Ming, political science professor at the College of Staten Island in New York, said Xi's Belt and Road plan is a bid by the ruling Chinese Communist Party to shore up its legitimacy by boosting economic growth.
"Central Asia is rich in energy and other resources, which is needed for China's economic development," Xia said. "It can also help Central Asian countries to build railways, ports, and bridges and other infrastructure, but also to digest China's excess capacity."
He said Xi is also pouring money into building maritime routes.
"They want to connect up shipping routes from the East and South China Seas with the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean," Xia said.
"This is part of the economic strategy to enable Chinese goods to be shipped to various parts of Europe and Asia," he said. "But it's also part of China's political strategy to become a major naval power."
But Hong Kong China analyst Willy Lam said the forum is largely a public relations exercise for Xi.
"It is very clear that a lot of these investments and geopolitical positioning by China has to do with balancing the power of the United States," Lam said. "Personally, I think that this is a very dangerous move, because while China may seem rich and powerful on the face of it ... it is more like an investment black hole."
Hu Xingdou, economics professor at the Beijing University of Science and Technology, said the success of Xi's project will ultimately depend on private-sector involvement.
"It can't be allowed to turn into a completely government-led project, as we had during the Great Leap Forward [1950-1953] era," he said. "They should ensure private sector participation and investment ... and make it subject to market forces."
"That's the only way to turn this into a win-win scenario for multiple parties."
Reported by Qiao Long and Gao Shan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wong Si-lam for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.