Kites. Balloons. Pigeons. Drones. Alcohol. The list of things that have been banned in the run up to the 70th anniversary of the founding of China keeps growing.
As Beijing seeks to ensure the special day on 1 October goes off without a hint of a hitch, motorists have been told they must not refuel their cars or motorbikes on their own. There must be no use of walkie-talkies and other devices using radio waves. During rehearsals for a military parade to mark the day, those living near Tiananmen Square have been instructed “not to approach the windows” and to keep their curtains closed. In neighbouring Shanxi province, police and other public security staff have been forbidden from drinking spirits since 15 September.
The crackdown is fiercest among those who criticise the government. Normally outspoken activists and critics have been ordered not to speak to foreign media. Some, who have expressed support for the Hong Kong protests, have had to promise they won’t travel to the city until well after the anniversary on 1 October.
The popular microblog Weibo has also launched a “special clean-up operation” against “harmful political information” and any accounts or posts that “distort the history of the party and the country,” according to a statement issued earlier this month.
The tightening of control in the run up to the celebrations comes as Beijing is facing what is arguably its most difficult chapter since 1989, when the military killed thousands pro-democracy protesters, plunging the country into international isolation.
“This year’s commemoration comes at a time when Xi and the Chinese communist party are facing an extraordinary set of challenges at home and abroad,” said Jude Blanchette, Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“From unrest in Hong Kong and its impact on the upcoming Taiwan elections, its the extraordinary crackdown on Uighurs in western China and a slowing economy, and of course the rapid deterioration in US-China relations, the coming year will arguably be the most challenging for Beijing since 1989,” he said.
The extreme measures the government has gone to make sure the event goes smoothly betrays some of that insecurity because for Beijing, the 70th anniversary is more than just another national day. It is also a marker of survival: the PRC has now lasted longer than the Soviet Union and it is cementing its role as a global power.
“This is another milestone, another moment to show that the CCP has remained against all odds and all predictions,” said Maura Cunningham, a historian who specialises in modern China. “This is a time the party can demonstrate order and control, and might,” she said.
Free TVs and bright red flags
The holiday is as much about impressing Chinese citizens as it is about projecting Chinese strength abroad. The milestone will be marked with a massive military parade, fireworks and a speech by president Xi Jinping. Some 100,000 people “from all walks of life” will be attending the event, according to state media. To ensure those not invited still watch, authorities have given out 620,000 television sets.
Bright red flags have been newly hung in apartment compounds and neighbourhoods. Giant topiaries in honour of the 70th anniversary decorate Beijing’s roads. Banners across overpasses read: “Today’s China is the result of the work of Chinese people.”
But the spectre of unrest in Hong Kong – much of it aimed at Beijing’s rule over the semi-autonomous territory –looms large over the celebrations. Protesters are calling for mass demonstrations in the days leading up to the holiday as well as on 1 Oct. Already, Hong Kong has cancelled fireworks and has planned a “modest but solemn” celebration in light of likely disruptions.
“Hong Kong has become a battleground for demonstrating to the world that Chinese people if given the chance do not want to live under the kind of communist rule that Xi Jinping advertises every day to the world. Oct 1 will show that difference,” said Jerome Cohen, a China law expert and professor at New York University. “For him, it may be the most difficult problem he has encountered.”
‘The party is on the back foot’
China’s challenges may be more obvious to outsiders than to its own citizens. Over the last year, officials have portrayed the country as strong enough to weather the trade war and right a slowing Chinese economy.
Yet even as the party remains firmly in control within the country, there are pockets of dissent, ranging from support for the protesters in Hong Kong to veiled criticism from intellectuals or even from those within the party.
In recent weeks, a crackdown on virtual private networks, used to get around China’s “great firewall” and access banned foreign websites has become so severe that the editor of China’s state-run tabloid known for its nationalist views, criticised the censorship.
“National Day is approaching and it’s extremely difficult to access the web,” Hu Xijin wrote on Weibo, describing such measures as a “bit over the top” given that “the overwhelming majority of our people are patriotic and love the party with strong political conviction.”
“This country is not fragile. I suggest society have more access to the outside internet, which will benefit the strength and maturity of China’s public opinion, scientific research, external communications, and China’s national interests,” Hu said in a post that has since been deleted.
In a recent article tracing the development of the CCP over the last seven decades, Wang Changjiang, a professor at the Central Party School wrote of the need for “intra-party democracy,” a term to describe checks and balances within the CCP, which for decades has operated under a system of collective leadership and competition between factions.
Experts believe Xi, who once pledged to expand such checks, has eroded that system of collective leadership by taking down rivals and changing the constitution to allow himself to stay in power indefinitely.
“Intra-party democracy is not only a problem that must be solved for the sustainable development of the Communist Party itself, but also a problem that needs to be answered urgently for maintaining power in a sound way,” Wang wrote.
Under Xi, Beijing has adopted a more assertive position on the international stage, promoting initiatives like One Belt One Road. Some believe that has provoked backlash, prompting other countries to move from engaging China to attempting to contain the country.
“The party is on the back foot and while Xi now has an open path to lifetime leadership, that leadership looks very insecure,” said Cohen. “By making himself number one, he makes himself the number one target for everything that goes wrong,” he said.
In some ways, Xi appears to be taking a more defensive position. In a speech earlier this month, he told cadres at the Communist Party school in Beijing: “We must pay attention… to the art of battle. We must grasp contradictions, understand their aspects, and rationally choose our method of battle.”
“On matters of principle, not an inch will be yielded… but on matters of tactics there can be flexibility,” he said.
Additional reporting by Lillian Yang and Jiahui Huang