The ruling Chinese Communist Party has mobilized hundreds of thousands of its citizens as part of a massive nationwide security operation ahead of the Oct. 1 National Day celebrations in Beijing, local residents said.
Local sources said that some 200,000 citizen security guards, who wear red armbands or sashes, have been deployed in Beijing to keep tabs on fellow residents in the run-up to the politically sensitive event, which will mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.
The citizens-turned-guards are also empowered to check the ID of passers-by, especially around the city's iconic Tiananmen Square and all along Chang'an Boulevard, which runs through it.
They could even check the ID of people using public toilets, sources told RFA.
Officials are reportedly concerned that toilets -- with their relative degree of privacy -- could be an ideal place from which to plot acts of subversion, disruption or even terrorism, a local journalist said.
Patrols in public toilets were initially implemented in Beijing ahead of a massive military parade in 2015, when the ruling party celebrated its 90th birthday.
A Chaoyang district resident who gave only his surname Liu said many of the volunteer security guards hail from his neighborhood, which has led to their being dubbed the "Chaoyang Masses."
He said guards recruited by a Communist Party committee in Chaoyang's Xiaohongmen township came from the lowest echelons of society, and we only paid 50 yuan a day for their work.
"People who take on stability maintenance work usually have no job and are on the lowest rung of the social ladder," Liu said. "They are often aged from about 40 to 55 -- [a typical patrol will consist of] around four or five of these people, and then two or three [professional] security guards."
"They don't really patrol: they just sit in one place," he said.
Competition for jobs
Liu said there were around 30-40 "Chaoyang Masses" already recruited in his village.
"There's still a lot of competition for these jobs," Liu said. "You can't just apply on your own account; you have to get picked by the village committee, and they turn some people away even when they want to do it."
"They get to pick whoever they choose."
Meanwhile, the authorities are already putting pressure on dissidents, rights activists, and even some outspoken Maoists, to leave the capital ahead of the celebrations.
"The floating population basically gets rid of itself, because people go on vacation," a Beijing resident surnamed Chen told RFA. "I have left town already."
He said the stability maintenance machinery, aimed at preventing any form of public unrest before it can start, has sprung into action all across China.
"It's like this everywhere in the country," Chen said. "It's particularly tight this year; they're saying it's on a war footing."
"There is only one aim: to keep any unstable factors away from Beijing."
A resident of the northern city of Shijiazhuang surnamed Sun said he had been warned off traveling to the capital ahead of the National Day celebrations after he published pro-liberal comments on his social media account.
"A police officer from the police station in my jurisdiction called me and said that it would be best if I didn't go to Beijing at this time," Sun said.
"The leaders of the local state security police bureau called me up, and then brought two people to to [my home]," he said. "They told me I should say less and that I shouldn't travel [to Beijing]."
No travel to northern China
Sun said he was given permission to travel anywhere in southern, western or central China, but not the north.
Repeated requests for comments from several departments of the Beijing municipal governments went unanswered at the time of writing.
A Beijing resident who gave only his surname Zhao said that some 300,000 had taken part in a mass rehearsal from Sept. 21-23, in which they had lined the parade route along Chang'an Boulevard.
Meanwhile, the government's censorship machine has been busy blocking people's social media accounts, while several VPN services that enable Chinese internet users to access content outside the Great Firewall are no longer working.
"Three of my group chats were blocked. I have set them up again 221 times since then," an online activist surnamed Zhu told RFA. "I think a lot of groups are going to get shut down around Oct. 1, during such a sensitive period."
She said many group chat moderators have been warned by the police and even jailed after making critical comments on the social media platform WeChat.
"Many moderators are being detained or called in to "drink tea," so many of them," Zhu said in a reference to information "chats" with state security police. "My friend [Zhang] has now been sentenced in Guangzhou, for one year, I heard. A woman in Guangzhou known as the 'director' is also missing, and a group moderator disappeared in Xiamen, Fujian, too."
A social media user surnamed Sun said one of her groups had been shut down on WeChat in recent days.
"The VPN gets very slow, incredibly slow. This is basically it now. You can't even get online after about 9.00 p.m," she said.
Chongqing-based internet user netizen Wei agreed, saying: "They are really cracking down fiercely with shutting stuff down now. A lot of the groups had people from Hong Kong in them."
"The authorities have clearly stepped up stability maintenance measures across the whole of society," an internet user surnamed Zhou told RFA. "They want to create a joyful, peaceful, prosperous and stable atmosphere, so any discordant comments online could get you shut down."
"It's topics like the Hong Kong anti-extradition movement and the National Day military parade in particular," he said. "I and some of the people I known have to go and 'drink tea' [with state security police]."
ExpressVPN, a major provider of virtual private networks to users behind the Great Firewall, said it was finding ways to work around the restrictions.
"Our team is working hard to improve VPN connectivity in China, which has been impeded in advance of political events," the company said on its China status page.
"With China's National Day coming up on October 1, 2019, we are already seeing some other VPN providers being affected," it said in an e-mail sent to subscribers. "Our engineers are preparing for the possibility of further escalation."
Reported by Wong Siu-san and Sing Man for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.