Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 23 September 2019


Closing My Curtains for Xi Jinping and His Grand Parade
·       Sept. 23, 2019, 5:16 a.m. ET
·       BEIJING — President Xi Jinping was holding a military parade, and the Chinese police wanted me out.
Officer Wang Yong, a veteran of the Beijing security bureau with nervous eyes and amber teeth, came to my door one recent Saturday morning to deliver the news.
“Do you know about the National Day celebrations?” he asked.
I nodded. In early October, Mr. Xi would be the host of a grand celebration to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, along the Street of Eternal Peace, near my apartment.
“You need to leave,” Officer Wang said. “Armed police will be stationed inside for four days.”
As an American journalist based in Beijing for the past four years, I am accustomed to onerous visa rules, hassles at the airport and arbitrary detentions in the countryside.
But never had the police insisted on occupying my home. I imagined a cantankerous bunch of officers spread out on the sofa, poring over books on dissident art and American politics as they smoked the night away.
Officer Wang, strong but slumping, with gray tufts of hair springing from under his navy cap, grew impatient. “Do you understand?” he said. “Don’t you have another place to go?”
Even in quiet times, Beijing can feel stifling: the police, the propaganda, the smog.
But the city is in a state of extreme agitation before Mr. Xi’s parade, a show of strength meant to signal to the United States and other countries that China and its leader, who is also general secretary of the ruling Communist Party, are more resilient than ever.
Officials are leading a more extensive security crackdown than usual, perhaps reflecting concerns within the party about threats to social stability, as unrest brews in Hong Kong.
Bomb-sniffing dogs patrol shopping malls. Police and military officers stand guard on street corners. X-ray machines and metal detectors protect entrances to residential buildings, shops and hotels along the parade route.
Even by the standards of an authoritarian government, the rules are strict. The city has imposed bans on flying kites, drones, balloons and captive pigeons, a popular pastime, in many areas. Some Chinese cities are barring officials from consuming alcohol in the run-up to the parade.
Mr. Xi, China’s most powerful leader since Mao, is the unmistakable star of the show, and the streets are filled with bright red propaganda banners urging the public to rally behind him, referring to his call for a “new era” of centralized control and his vision of a “Chinese dream” of economic prosperity.
“Seek happiness for the Chinese people, seek rejuvenation for the Chinese nation,” one banner says.
“Everybody is a witness, pioneer and builder of the new era,” reads another.
“We are all chasing the dream,” proclaims a third.
Since early September, the authorities have placed my entire neighborhood, not far from Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, on lockdown. Roads are blocked, and the internet has slowed to a crawl. Security officers pat me down every time I enter my apartment building, morning and night.
On weekends, during rehearsals for the parade, tanks rumble down the street and fighter jets and helicopters patrol the skies, carrying red hammer-and-sickle flags as cargo.
The police have imposed curfews, requiring residents to return to their homes by 5 p.m., and lock windows and close curtains by 8. Police officers sleep in the hallways of apartment buildings to ensure the rules are followed.
In messages slipped under my door, the authorities thanked me for my cooperation in the security campaign, known as “safe and sound Beijing.” But the checks were tedious and exhausting, another reminder of the strength of the police state in China, where surveillance cameras and facial-recognition technology are used to spy on citizens on a huge scale.
Yet many of my Chinese friends are indifferent, even proud. When the Beijing government posted an online notice detailing nightmarish traffic disruptions, internet users rejoiced.
“I look forward to the grand military parade,” said one of the most popular comments on WeChat, a popular messaging app, punctuated by three thumbs-up emoticons. “My country is amazing.”
On a recent afternoon, I walked to Tiananmen Square, the site of the government’s bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in 1989. The parade was set to culminate in Tiananmen, though this painful chapter in modern Chinese history would not be discussed, in keeping with the party line.
Outside the Forbidden City, which is just north of Tiananmen Square, many people told me the parade was another sign of China’s growing military and economic prowess.
“China now ranks top in the world,” said Wang Wanting, 22, a university student in Beijing. “China will get stronger and stronger and surpass the United States.”
Nearby, Li Peiqin, a food delivery worker, sat on his scooter, watching tourists wander around the gates of the Forbidden City.
Mr. Li said he moved to Beijing last month from the southern province of Guangdong so that he could experience two things: the snow and Mr. Xi’s parade. He had stocked up on instant noodles and rice in anticipation. He said he was most looking forward to the cannons and fighter jets, which are expected to be featured alongside intercontinental ballistic missiles, drones and other weapons.
“China needs to better protect itself,” he said.
I walked to a nearby park. A propaganda sign now hung at the entrance: “Let patriotism become every Chinese person’s firm belief and spiritual sustenance.”
Inside, construction workers napped on benches. Small groups of chain-smoking men played poker, shouting obscenities as they slapped cards on the table.
 “They can’t stop our games,” a retiree, Xu Jin, said of the security crackdown, as he anted up 35 renminbi, or about $5.
With the curfew approaching, I headed home. From my window, I could see police officers gathering on nearby rooftops, assembling tents and surveying the neighborhood through binoculars.
At 8 p.m., I closed my curtains, following police orders. About a half-hour later, Officer Wang was at my door, more brusque than before.
“Didn’t I tell you there was an exercise today?” he asked. “Why didn’t you close your curtains?”
I explained that I had, but Officer Wang, incredulous, stepped into my living room to inspect. “Keep them closed,” he said, storming out.
In the days that followed, Officer Wang called my cellphone to remind me I needed to leave and to ask where I would go. It was clear that there was no room for negotiation, that I had no choice but to obey the rules.
One day, I awoke to a rainbow-colored tapestry outside my window. The authorities had hung 40 lines of red, blue, green and yellow flags between two buildings that overlooked my street. The flags were most likely aimed at blocking views of Mr. Xi and the weapons, but they were decidedly out of place, an irreverent diversion from the sea of black-and-gray office buildings that surround my home.
I watched one day as a group of visiting Tibetan monks wandered over to the multicolor display, seemingly amused by its likeness to traditional prayer flags.
As police officers patrolled the neighborhood and office workers submitted to pat-downs, the monks stood before the flags and smiled blissfully, snapping selfies in the late-summer sun.
Javier C. Hernández has been a China correspondent in Beijing since 2015. He joined The New York Times in 2008, and previously covered education and politics. Follow him on Twitter: @HernandezJavier.

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