March 3, 2008 / 2:34 AM / 11 years ago

China muzzles capital ahead of annual parliament

BEIJING (Reuters) - Hundreds of thousands of police, security guards and volunteers patrolled Beijing on Monday to usher in China’s annual session of parliament and pounce on the slightest hint of dissent in the Olympic host city.

As leaders from around the country gather in the Chinese capital for the National People’s Congress (NPC) opening on Wednesday, authorities have left nothing to chance, demanding security forces regard the two-week meeting with the same urgency they would for the Olympics in August.

Police were out in force outside the Great Hall of the People, the hulking Soviet-era building abutting Tiananmen Square where delegates will meet and where the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, parliament’s advisory body, opened its annual session on Monday.

Grocer Liu Xiang, 33, like many Chinese, can only guess at what the fuss is all about. “I suppose there’s some meeting between the leaders,” Liu said, weighing a bag of mandarins at a market a few blocks east of the square. “Who knows what they talk about? How would I know? I’m just a common person.”

Beijing has called on People’s Liberation Army troops, the paramilitary armed police, police, common security guards and urban management officials to fan out across city streets.

In and around Tiananmen Square, volunteers with their red arm bands stood watch every 100 yards or so in the bright spring sun, as huge red flags billowed from the buildings above.

More than 1 million volunteers are to stand at street corners and bus stations and patrol local communities “as a rehearsal for the Olympics”, Xinhua news agency said. Their ranks would include 80,000 Olympic volunteers who would also “assist with urban beautification”, the Beijing Youth Daily said.

All aviation activity involving “sport, recreation and advertising” within a 200 km (125 miles) radius of Tiananmen Square had been put on hold, the Public Security Bureau said in a statement to six provinces surrounding Beijing.

Local officials were also asked to keep track of the activities involving “parasailing, paragliders and private light aircraft” in their regions, it said.

China has pledged to open its murky political procedures to more public scrutiny, but the nearly 3,000 delegates to the NPC will meet behind closed doors to rubber-stamp personnel changes and policy decisions fixed in secretive meetings months before.

Li Nan, a 27-year-old media student from China’s wheat-bowl province of Henan, is “interested in politics that affect common people”, but admitted to being unable to name her parliamentary representative.

“In any case, nothing major is going to happen at this meeting,” she said. “After all, we’re still a one-party state.”

The ruling Communist Party has pronounced itself the only authority able to protect China’s 1.3 billion people from crises and guide them to prosperity.

But in recent months, it has appeared far from infallible amidst high inflation and bitter winter storms that cut off power to millions and exposed the country’s brittle infrastructure.

While government Web sites have invited Internet users to air their grievances, authorities have taken great pains to ensure their complaints aren’t delivered to NPC delegates in person.

Shanghai resident Cai Zhengrong, who has been trying to get compensation after his house was demolished to make way for luxury apartments, was detained shortly after arriving in Beijing to petition the central government, he told Reuters.

“When I got off the train on Monday, today I was forced into an underground room on an unknown street by people’s whose identities I do not know,” Cai said by text message.

He was unable to be reached after that.

Editing by Nick Macfie

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