HONG KONG—China has intensified controls on dissidents, media outlets, and anyone with a grievance against the government as its leaders seek to consolidate support during this week’s 17th Party Congress in Beijing.
Authorities maintained tight controls over news, blog posts, and comments on major Web sites, local journalists, and netizens said.
“They already have instructions about what they can publish and what they can’t,” Ocean Daily News reporter Zan Aizong told RFA’s Mandarin service.
“For example, my article asked whether or not the 17th Party Congress could be like the fall of the Berlin Wall in providing a breakthrough opportunity for the development of democratic reforms. But no sooner had I posted it on my blog hosted on XinlangNet than it was removed,” Zan told reporter Ding Xiao.
In his speech to the Congress, which has been convened to elect President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao to a second, five-year term in office, Hu pledged to make communist rule more inclusive and better spread the fruits of China’s economic boom.
Hu also offered talks on a formal peace accord with Taiwan, but the proposal included preconditions unacceptable to the self-governing island, which quickly rejected it.
I think that petitioning doesn't work because the entire system is corrupt; it's systemic corruption.
China’s netizens were able to read blogs by Party Congress delegates, but they were unable to post anything other than messages of support, or general calls for improvements in health, education, or the standard of living.
Sharper forms of criticism of the government, its officials, or policies were removed. Some estimated that around 70 percent of comments and forum posts were being censored.
Among posts seen on the People’s Daily Web site were a call for President Hu to enter into an online dialogue with China’s netizens. Others called for Hu to put the interests of the people before the interests of the Party, and introduce democratic reforms.
Meanwhile, as delegates gathered to hear Hu promise to improve democratic involvement of the people in their own affairs, and better supervision of corrupt officials, police in the capital were conducting room-to-room searches of local guesthouses. They were rounding up anyone in town who was a known petitioner, meaning a person with a documented complaint against government institutions, petitioners said.
“We are all living out here in tents now,” one petitioner told RFA’s Mandarin service on the eve of the Congress from a location in the countryside outside Beijing.
“We don’t dare to go back to ‘petitioner village,’ because they are detaining people at the moment,” she said.
The authorities have sent out a series of propaganda directives to media and Web sites, requiring them to tighten up registration requirements for interactive forums, blogs, and chatrooms online, or risk having the plug pulled on the Internet in their area.
As President Hu Jintao delivered his work report to the Congress in Beijing, police linked arms less than a mile away to ensure that no-one with anything unflattering to say about government officials made it anywhere near him.
“I just came by the Supreme People’s Court and the petitioning offices there, and I saw that in fact there are a lot more police than there are petitioners,” a Beijing-based petitioner surnamed Zhao told reporter Fang Yuan.
“They are standing there arm in arm preventing anyone from getting through towards Tiananmen Square. They have parked all their vehicles a long way from the entrance to the Square–maybe several hundred meters away.”
He said officials from the provinces were standing by ready to detain anyone who got as far as central Beijing from outside the capital.
“There are also a bunch of police vehicles and personnel blocking the entrance of the small alleyway by the petitions and complaints office. In the intersection by the petitioning offices there is a crowd of officials from every province, sitting there on little stools,” Zhao said.
“On the public light bus I was riding, they were playing the television broadcast of Hu Jintao’s speech and relaying it to everyone. He was talking about grassroots democracy, socialism with Chinese characteristics, and they were checking all the people who came anywhere near the Square. It’s not far to the Square from where we were, and I wondered how he would explain what was happening so close by,” Zhao added.
Callers to RFA’s Mandarin listener hotlines expressed disappointment with Hu’s speech.
A physician from Shanghai surnamed Chen said the meeting was over before it had even started. “According to the Party, everything is great, nice, and complete,” he told host Gu Jirou.
“The sense of social grievance is so strong right now, but they simply ignore it,” he said.
A listener surnamed Xu from Jiangsu said Hu’s speech lacked freshness, and “put people to sleep.”
“The CCP always says one thing and does another. It’s very easy for smart people to find out that all the rhetoric is fake,” he said.
Political commentators said they expected no surprises from this Congress, which will set the political agenda for the next five years.
Hu and Wen were believed to be grooming a potential successor to carry forward their policies of economic reforms, while maintaining a tight grip on political change, they said.
Already waiting in the wings, according to some analysts, is Shanghai Party secretary Xi Jinping.
Beijing-based independent writer Gao Xin said pundits inside and outside China were keeping a close eye on Xi as a potential successor when Hu and Wen hand over power at the 18th Party Congress.
“When Xi Jinping was made Shanghai Party secretary, a provincial-grade post, He Guoqiang went down to attend. This is very unusual because it’s usually the job of a deputy minister to attend such functions, and ministers don’t usually show their faces,” Gao told reporter Shen Hua.
“This sent a message to the outside world and to the media that the central government had taken great care in selecting this particular Party secretary because it wasn’t just as the Party secretary that he was being chosen.”
Xi has a good reputation in Shanghai at the moment, according to writer Li Jianhong, who is based in the city, largely because he was seen as a troubleshooter called in to clean up a major graft scandal surrounding his predecessor Chen Liangyu.
“Most ordinary people in Shanghai think of Xi Jinping as a fairly pragmatic official, with a fairly enlightened ideology,” Li said.
“For example, he brought up the question of the supervision of the Party at the recent meeting of the People’s Congress in the city. He said that the reason that [former Shanghai Party secretary] Chen Liangyu and a group of senior officials had been found to be corrupt was probably a lack of public scrutiny of the Party’s work.”
According to Gao: “The next leadership team will definitely include Xi Jinping.”
Meanwhile, petitioners and dissident voices around the country were temporarily silenced through detention, house arrest, or the cutting off of communications during the politically sensitive meeting.
Liaoning-based petitioner Liu Chunbao said in a home-made video produced as the Congress began, and just a few hours before his own detention, that petitioning—attempting to win redress for official wrongdoing through legal, bureaucratic means—was a dead-end street for thousands of Chinese now.
“I think that petitioning doesn’t work because the entire system is corrupt. It’s systemic corruption,” he said in his video, made available to RFA’s Cantonese service.
“They say they do things according to the law, so why should petitioning be any different? If you go to petition, why do they detain you and bring you back to your home province?”
“Why do they have to tell you they think you have a case and then do nothing about it? This has been going on, back and forth, for 40 years. What kind of a system is that? Then they even give us this stuff about a ‘harmonious society.’ What sort of harmony can there possibly be?” Liu said.
Original reporting in Mandarin by Fang Yuan, Shen Hua, Yan Ming, Ding Xiao, and Yang Jiadai. Cantonese reporting by Grace Kei Lai-see. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.