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Party crashers

Pigeons and paranoia belie China's surprising calm

John Foley 

China’s upcoming Party Congress is a rare chance to see what troubles China’s authorities. This year, the list of identified threats includes pigeons, taxi passengers and kitchen knives. It sounds like overzealous bureaucracy ahead of a once-in-a-decade leadership transition. But it’s to the outgoing leaders’ credit that even without such rules, China remains basically economically and socially stable.

Some of the new curbs seem frivolous – such as banning pigeon owners from flying their birds during the week-long congress, or preventing supermarkets from stocking knives. Others are more troubling, like the rounding up of dissidents, or the co-opting of townships around Beijing to keep undesirables at bay, in a project named after the moat around the Forbidden City. Some seem unduly elaborate, like telling taxi drivers to seal back windows to prevent seditious leafleting.

The Communist Party may fear being embarrassed. That’s nothing new – Beijing sprayed dead grass with green dye during its 2000 Olympic bid. But there’s little sign of serious turmoil at present. Recent environmental protests in Ningbo, and protests over Japan’s claim on some disputed islands, were heated but essentially pro-establishment. Ningbo’s NIMBYs waved Chinese flags and, according to microbloggers, sang the national anthem.

Ten years ago, things were probably more fragile. As Hu Jintao took over the party reins from Jiang Zemin, China’s inequality as measured by the Gini coefficient had shot past India, Indonesia and South Korea. As many as 30 per cent of the loans in China’s banks were bad, versus less than one per cent now, according to official numbers. And after heavy cuts in the state sector, some 14 million people remained unemployed - twice the figure a decade earlier.

The anxiety shouldn’t be dismissed. It’s still unclear whether a one-party state has what it takes to guide China to wealthy-nation status. The environment, corruption and friction between disgruntled workers and bosses are all sources of strife. The rise of internet use has made it harder to silence discontent. But if one of the biggest threats to the party is free-roaming pigeons, it may surprise for a few years more.

(Research by Kathy Gao)

First Published: Sat, November 03 2012. 00:51 IST