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China’s leadership gathers for secretive meeting as dissidents placed under guard

Chinese police standing in Beijing. (Beijing Patrol/Flickr)
November 04, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party on Monday kicked off a three-day plenary session of its Central Committee, with police placing many outspoken critics of the regime under house arrest or close surveillance.

As the Chinese leadership gathered at Beijing’s Jingxi Hotel, a Stalinist-style facility closed to the public, uniformed and plainclothes police stopped traffic and searched passersby in the vicinity, preventing traffic from passing anywhere near the venue.

Local exits from Beijing’s subway system were shuttered, amid frequent police patrols in nearby streets, local residents told RFA.

Veteran political journalist Gao Yu indicated that she too was under surveillance.

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“There are people in my home right now, guests, so it’s not convenient for me to talk, sorry,” Gao said when contacted by RFA on Monday, using a euphemism frequently used by dissidents to indicate surveillance by the authorities.

“There are these friends here, so I can’t really talk.”

Beijing-based activist Li Wei said he had been under police restrictions for the past three days.

“There’s one police officer and two security guards,” Li said. “They are taking turns to watch me in shifts, three a day, and this will go on until Oct. 31, after the plenum closes.”

The plenary session of the 19th Party Congress will see the Chinese leadership meet at the highest levels to set policy for the next few years, in a meeting that will run from Oct. 28-31.

Movements restricted

Li said police have set restrictions on his movements, including dictating where he is allowed to go and whom he is allowed to meet for the duration of the plenum.

“If I want to go out to buy some groceries nearby or just to take a walk, they’ll follow along too,” he said. “There are also people watching me round the clock from two parked vehicles outside my apartment building.”

Li said state security police are coordinating the surveillance.

“Usually the people watching me are sent from the local police station by the Haidian branch of the state security police, for example,” he said. “Sometimes they don’t tell the local police station why the surveillance is happening.”

“But this time around, they all know that it’s for the fourth party plenum.”

Beijing-based rights activist Hu Jia said he isn’t allowed to leave his apartment.

“It’s a beautiful day in Beijing right now,” Hu said. “It’s a shame I can’t walk around in the sun, but I’m not allowed out.”

“This happens in the latter part of every year, starting with the plenum and going on until the end of the parliamentary sessions [in March],” he said. “The plenum is quite short, and at least I don’t have to leave town for surveillance purposes.”

“They are afraid that I’ll give interviews to foreign media if I go out, or maybe they’re worried that I will start some kind of street protest with placards or rallies at this time,” he said.

Under close surveillance

Beijing resident Qi Zhiyong, who was maimed when a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) tank ran over his legs on the night of June 3, 1989, during the bloody crackdown on the student-led pro-democracy movement, said he has been under close surveillance since Monday.

“There are three people [watching me],” Qi said on Monday. “They follow me everywhere I go, and I’m not allowed to go anywhere sensitive at all.”

Qi said police are escorting him to the hospital and back for dialysis three times a week.

“They have to report back, and I’m only allowed to go if they approve it,” he said. “I have to have additional surveillance because I’m a key person [for stability maintenance purposes]. My mood is very low, because I’m also sick.”

Former rights attorney Bao Longjun, who was detained during a crackdown on rights lawyers and law firms beginning in July 2015, said he had been summoned to make a police statement after police found him at a subway station in downtown Beijing on Monday.

He was also forced to give a urine sample, in accordance with security directives surrounding the fourth plenum, he said.

This week’s plenum is the fourth time that China’s roughly 370-person Central Committee has gathered since the 19th party congress in 2017.

Little information available

Little information about the content of discussions is made public, and journalists have no access. Attendees are required to remain on site for the duration of the meeting, to prevent leaks.

State news agency Xinhua reported on Monday that the plenum would focus on ways to improve Xi’s “socialist system with Chinese characteristics and the advancement of the national governance system and governance capability.”

“By the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, we will realize the modernization of the national governance system and the governance capability in a comprehensive manner, so that the socialist system with Chinese characteristics will be even more solidified and its superiority will be fully demonstrated,” the agency reported.

“China is now in the critical period of realizing the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” it said.

Wu Qiang, a former politics lecturer at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University, said Xi, who has embarked on an unlimited term in office as China’s president, now faces scant opposition within party ranks.

“There is nobody within the party with the power to present a real challenge to him, or to force him to change,” Wu said, adding that any talk of a potential designated successor to Xi lacks meaning.

“There isn’t anyone capable of stepping into his shoes and being a real successor,” he said. “There is no uncertainty around the fact that Xi will serve a third term, and no reshuffling of personnel is going to change that.”

Trade war, protests

Wu said the 20-month trade war with the United States and ongoing protests in Hong Kong are likely to figure prominently on the agenda, with both issues having the potential to undermine Xi’s grip on power.

“They are both threats that could create doubts in party ranks about the line [Xi Jinping] is taking,” he said. “Such doubts could affect his authority, which is to say that he may make concessions to technocrats in the pragmatic faction of the party by giving them some power in the Politburo standing committee.”

Wu said former Tibet Autonomous Region Communist Party secretary Hu Chunhua, who is linked with former president Hu Jintao’s Youth League faction, could be a candidate for promotion.

“He could agree to bring in Hu Chunhua, while at the same time bringing his trusted ally [and current Chongqing party secretary] Chen Min’er in as well, which would actually be a kind of concession,” Wu said.