Chinese police crack down on petitioners, dissidents ahead of 20th party congress
Critics of the regime are warned against posting to social media or giving interviews to foreign media.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has announced it will hold its 20th National Congress on Oct. 16, amid a mounting wave of censorship and curbs on the freedom of dissident voices around the country.
A Beijing-based petitioner surnamed Ma said police had already started rounding up petitioners, ordinary people who pursue complaints against local government wrongdoing through China's "letters and visits" system, despite frequent detention and harassment from "interceptors" sent from their hometowns to stop them.
"The Beijing police started rounding up petitioners more than 10 days ago — they've all been taken back to where they came from," she said. "People came from Heilongjiang more than 10 days ago to detain people, and we got into a fight with officers from the police station."
"There were 60 households in the building, and they were going door-to-door, checking on people," Ma said. "I was detained too ... people from our hometowns are being permitted to come to Beijing for law enforcement."
"The village where I live was a total mess on Aug. 30, too, with everyone very nervous."
Ma said hotels have been told not to let anyone from out of town stay longer than a week at a time.
"Before the pandemic, it was 15 days, but now it's been shortened to seven days," she said.
A Liaoning petitioner surnamed Zhang said that, once they get home, petitioners face house arrest or even detention by local police and government officials.
"No petitioners are being allowed to go to Beijing right now," Zhang said. "They are basically targeting petitioners from [all over China] in Beijing."
"If you go to the State Bureau of Letters and Visits, you will be intercepted by police from your local area, and put in quarantine as if you have COVID-19," Zhang said.
Warnings to keep quiet
State security police have also been calling and summoning dissidents and rights activists to warn them to keep quiet and not to give interviews to overseas media, sources told RFA.
"The police just had one thing to say to me, that I'm not to speak out, write anything or give interviews to foreign journalists in the run-up to the 20th National Congress," an independent scholar told RFA on condition of anonymity.
"This is what they told me repeatedly," they said. "What can we do, the way things are in this country right now?"
Liaoning petitioner and rights activist Jiang Jiawen said he was under round-the-clock surveillance by local authorities in a hospital in Dandong city near the border with North Korea.
"Since I came back to Dandong to go to hospital, there have been two of them living in the same room as me," Jiang told RFA. "I'm in a single bed, and they're in double beds, in a hotel room that has been specially designed to hold me."
"There is steel fencing, and none of the other rooms have that," he said, adding that police made him sign a guarantee that he wouldn't travel to Beijing to petition before the party congress, and the authorities would feed and house him, as well as paying for his medical treatment.
There were some reports on social media suggesting that current COVID-19 restrictions in areas around Beijing, including Tianjin, Shijiazhuang and Baoding, were about controlling local populations ahead of the party congress.
"I'm in a residential compound in the Chang'an district of Shijiazhuang," WeChat account Sun Yuanping said in a video filmed on Aug. 31. "We've been doing PCR tests every day for the past seven days straight, and there have been ... no positive test results or confirmed cases for the past three days."
But the authorities still hadn't lowered the area to "low risk" under the zero-COVID policy, the user said.
'Widespread opposition and resentment'
The 20th National Congress will see CCP leader Xi Jinping seek an unprecedented third term in office, following constitutional amendments in March 2018 removal presidential term limits.
Political commentator Chen Pokong said the idea has scant genuine support in party ranks.
"Xi Jinping has been in power for 10 years, and .... foreign affairs are in a mess, while at home, there are complaints being raised everywhere," Chen wrote in a recent commentary for RFA Mandarin. "Not since Mao Zedong's death has a CCP leader faced such widespread opposition and resentment."
Chen said many privately oppose the ravages of Xi's zero-COVID policy on the economy, with rolling urban lockdowns and people forced to stand in line in all weathers for a COVID-19 test that will simply allow them to carry on with their daily lives.
"If you go the way of North Korea, then it will be hard for the people to breathe ... whereas if you stepped down they would heave a sigh of relief," Chen wrote.
But former CCP Central Party School magazine editor Deng Yuwen said it was highly unlikely that anyone would mount a serious opposition to Xi's third term from within party ranks.
"Xi Jinping has basically secured [his third term], but there will probably be some finer adjustments when it comes to the balance of power ... in the 48 days between now and the congress," Deng told RFA.
Xi, who holds the titles of CCP general secretary, chairman of the Central Military Commission and President, is expected to retain the first two titles at the 20th National Congress, which governs party matters, while his third term as president will need to be confirmed at the National People's Congress (NPC) in March 2023.
But political commentator Gao Wenqian said Xi could still see his star wane even if he gets his third term.
"The Xi faction won't have the same advantages they had at the 19th party congress ... with major mistakes and setbacks like the start of the pandemic, economic collapse, and the Russian war in Ukraine all making people angry," Gao said.
"Xi will have to negotiate with opposing factions within the party, and he will be forced to make concessions, which is a fatal weakness for a [Chinese] politician," he said.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.